Survey: Most college students grapple with depression

One in 10 seniors depressed "frequently"

About 54% of men and 61% of women "occasionally" or "frequently" feel depressed their senior year, according to a new survey highlighting the importance of mental health resources and counselors on campus.  

The Cooperative Institutional Research Program's (CIRP) 2014 College Senior Survey report follows up on the organization's 2010 Freshman Survey, which found that incoming freshmen have the worst self-reported emotional health in the 25 years since the survey began. That year, for the first time, only a little more than half of students reported their emotional health as "above average" or in the "highest 10%." Men were more likely to report good mental health (59.1%), but women were less so (45.9%).

CIRP's new survey asked many of the same students similar questions—and found low levels of emotional wellbeing often continued throughout college. Fewer than one in five students who placed their emotional health as "below average" or in the "lowest 10%" freshman year reported an improvement to "above average" or in the "highest 10%" by senior year.

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Of graduating women, 46.1% said they were "frequently" overwhelmed—compared with just 26.8% of men. Approximately one in 10 seniors said they feel depressed "frequently," again with women reporting at slightly higher rates than men.

"Feelings of stress may spike in the middle and end of each term when students are preparing for and taking exams," writes Kevin Eagan, University of California-Los Angeles professor and CIRP's affiliated scholar, in the Huffington Post. However, "anxiety and concerns about students' emotional well-being persist throughout the academic year, and research suggests that these issues are increasing among college students."

Furthermore, researchers caution that, however dismal, these results may actually be skew positive. Those students who rated very low emotional health in freshman year likely left school or failed to stay on a four-year graduation track—meaning that they were not included in the survey of seniors. 

Related: Dartmouth team cracks the student mental health code

"Given that students' self-ratings do not dramatically change while in college, it is important to consider how their incoming perceptions of emotional health affect college experiences," according to the 2014 senior survey. 

Meeting emotional health demand

Keeping track of incoming levels of emotional health may also allow institutions to better design, plan, and prepare mental health resources, say experts. 

Though college counseling and psychological services offices are in more demand than ever, staff members often report an inability to meet need. In 2012-2013, 24.6% of counseling centers reported a funding increase, but 53.2% had their budget remain flat and 22.2% had their budget cut.

Related: Mental health services increasingly outsourced at Canadian colleges

Additionally, the survey revealed men—even those who felt "frequently" depressed—were less likely to seek counseling than their female counterparts, meaning additional outreach may be needed.

"It seems clear that the stress and anxiety that students bring with them to college persist and perhaps even compound while in college, and institutions have an obligation to provide support and resources to these students," writes Eagan (Eagan et. al, Huffington Post, 12/16).

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