Around 1 in 7 college students were treated for anxiety in past year

Anxiety-ridden students overrun campus mental health centers

See EAB's take on this story.

A wave of anxious college students is creating major challenges for campus mental health centers, reports Jan Hoffman in New York Times' "Well" blog.

Of student clients on campus, half received counseling before they arrived at college, a third have taken psychiatric medication, and a quarter have hurt themselves, according to the most recent report from researchers at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) who tracked campus counseling centers for six years.

This increase in students seeking treatment may be due to the breakdown of stigma surrounding mental health, says Stephanie Preston, a University of Central Florida (UCF) counselor.

Campus counseling centers' primary function is to help students graduate, writes Hoffman, and research has repeatedly shown the connection. A survey of Ohio State University center found that about half of student clients reported their counseling helped them stay in school.

A rapidly growing disorder

The most common mental health diagnosis among college students is now anxiety—an umbrella term that covers issues ranging from panic attacks to social anxiety disorder to agoraphobia. It can be mild or debilitating, and treatment varies depending on the severity.

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Nearly one in seven college students has been treated or diagnosed with anxiety within the past year, according to the American College Health Association's annual survey. And the Penn State report found about half of students going to campus clinics cited it as an issue. (Editor's note: While the New York Times concluded that one in six college students was treated or diagnosed with anxiety, the report suggests the actual number is closer to one in seven.)

Experts cite a range of reasons for the increased prevalence:

"A primary symptom is worrying, and they don't have the ability to soothe themselves," says Dan Jones, Appalachian State University's director of counseling and psychological services.

Campus challenges, solutions

The increase in demand has led many colleges to move to a triage system: the most severe cases are treated first. While this prioritizes needs, it also means that students' mild problems may develop into more severe ones while waiting from two to five weeks, Locke says.

And most centers can only provide short-term individual therapy.

The UCF center has seen its number of clients jump 15.2% in the last year—now supply closets serve as offices for a few of the 30 therapists.

Staff must be prepared to deal with a range of problems students face, such parents' divorces or death, bipolar disorder, or transgender students who need letters for hormone therapy. "You never know who is going to walk in," says Karen Hofmann, the UCF center director.

Like many other colleges, UCF offers therapy groups and daily workshops to reach multiple students at once—and especially to connect with students who suffer but do not seek help.  Additionally, in the fall the center will pilot a mobile app that treats anxiety through a cognitive behavioral program featuring short videoconferences with therapists (Hoffman, "Well," New York Times, 5/27).

EAB's take

Molly O'Connor, Student Affairs Forum

The New York Times puts an important spotlight on the issue of anxiety on college campuses. But in spite of their article, the Times' eye-catching headline—that anxiety now plagues nearly one in six college students—unfortunately isn't new for many university leaders. In terms of presenting issues in the counseling center, anxiety has been higher than depression since 2010.

EAB researchers have conducted studies into tactics for improving mental health and counseling services on campus. You can find a library of those resources here.

Why are more students seeking treatment for anxiety? Send your thoughts to @eab_daily and let us know.

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