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Between 2009 and 2015, treatment and diagnoses of anxiety increased by nearly 6 percent among these students, followed by depression and panic attacks, which each increased about 3 percent. Anxiety is the most common problem, affecting almost 15 percent of college students across the United States, the researchers reported.
"Mental health is a critical issue for college students, and institutions of higher education need to explore prevention and support strategies that best meet the needs of their campus," said lead researcher Sara Oswalt. She is chair of the department of kinesiology, health and nutrition at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
It's not clear if the college environment is causing or even contributing to the increase in these problems. But if mental health problems aren't addressed, success in school is jeopardized, she said.
Oswalt believes more students are seeking help because more of them are suffering from mental health problems, coupled with a willingness to get help. There is less stigma about mental health issues, and schools may be providing more mental health services.
For the study, Oswalt and her colleagues used data from the American College Health Association to collect information on more than 450,000 undergraduates.
The investigators found a significant increase in the diagnosis and treatment for eight of 12 mental problems they examined, with anxiety, depression and panic attacks accounting for the biggest increases.
The researchers also found that students are more willing to use university mental health services.
By 2015, nearly 20 percent of those surveyed said they used these services, an increase of more than 4 percent since 2009. Moreover, nearly 75 percent said they would consider using university mental health services -- an increase of nearly 7 percent.
College students' need for mental health resources is increasing, Oswalt said, so schools need to do more to safeguard their students' well-being. They must do it in a way that is effective and use outside services when they cannot handle demand themselves, she suggested.
Because 75 percent of all serious adult psychiatric illnesses start by age 25, universities have an essential role in addressing mental health issues early, Oswalt explained.
According to Stewart Cooper, director of counseling services at Valparaiso University in Indiana, "Oswalt appropriately advocates for a systems approach to respond to these often debilitating disorders among college students."
In addition, programs are needed that focus on detecting mental health problems early -- making it possible to prevent them from getting worse -- and to minimize complications and limit disabilities before the problem becomes severe. "Mental health screening days and evidence-based materials and interventions that are technology-based fit here," he said.
Schools also need to offer therapy to students to reduce the negative effect of an already established mental health problem. These programs can help restore function and reduce complications, Cooper said.
The report was published Oct. 24 in the Journal of American College Health.
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SOURCES: Sara Oswalt, Ph.D., chair and professor, department of kinesiology, health and nutrition, University of Texas at San Antonio; Stewart Cooper Ph.D., director, counseling services, professor, psychology, Valparaiso University, Ind.; Oct. 24, 2018, Journal of American College Health