Mental Health Problems Common on College Campuses
The fact that Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old senior who allegedly killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech on Monday, was mentally troubled sheds harsh new light on a sad truth: For many students, the college years are far from the best years of their lives.
Depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health problems are increasingly common among college and university students in the United States. Consider:
- About 10 percent of students have seriously considered committing suicide.
- Forty-five percent of students say they've been so depressed it was difficult to function.
- More than 30 percent of freshmen report feeling overwhelmed a great deal of the time.
Students are seeking help for these problems. Students' use of campus mental health services has risen at almost all schools over the past three years, with 13 percent of students now using campus mental health services, according to a 2007 survey by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. But they don't always get the help they need. "There's striking variability in services," says Erig Heiligenstein, clinical director of psychiatry for health services at the University of WisconsinMadison. That variability, Heiligenstein says, "is scary." Parents usually aren't aware of what sorts of mental health services are available to their children. Some schools have accredited on-campus mental health programs, with therapists and psychiatrists on campus; others send troubled students to the university's career counseling service because they don't provide mental health services as part of student health.
On many campuses, students complain that they have to wait two or three weeks for an initial counseling appointment. The rising demand is due partly to growing enrollments, partly to less stigma against seeking help, and also, students and health officials say, because students feel anxious and pressured to perform. At the same time, some students are being treated for serious mental illnesses that a generation ago would have kept them out of school. Jerald Kay, chair of the department of psychiatry at Wright State University School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio, says he treats students with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which require both intensive psychotherapy and medication. Many schools don't have psychiatrists on staff, Kay says, which can force students and their families to try to find help off campus. "I don't know what happened at Virginia Tech," Kay says. "But we need to marshal more educational efforts on how you identify students with problems. There are warning signs, which might include intense anger, depression, suicidal thought or actions, and prolonged low self-esteem."
Students and teachers at Virginia Tech knew that Cho was troubled, according to university officials, and at least one teacher referred him to the campus counseling service. It's unclear if Cho went. "The laws are pretty consistent across the country, that students can only be committed when they are an imminent danger to themselves or others," says Richard Kadison, chief of mental health services at Harvard, and author of College of the Overwhelmed: The Mental Health Crisis and What to do About It. "I think more schools are mandating students for assessment when they are worried. But you really can't force someone to be in treatment."
Kadison says parents shouldn't hesitate to call the police in their child's college town if they think their child may hurt himself or others. Police can take a student to the nearest emergency room, he says. Parents facing a less dire situation can also call the student and say: "I'm really worried about you, and I'm 500 miles away. I want to check in with your proctor or resident assistant to find out how they think you're doing. If you've got worries about how that's going to affect you, let's figure out what I can say."