College mental-health crisis: 4 theories

Why are schools around the country seeing a dramatic rise in students seeking guidance for serious problems?

College counseling centers are reportedly seeing a sharp rise in the number of students with serious mental illness.
(Image credit: Corbis)

College mental-health centers are in the midst of a crisis, according to a recent report in The New York Times. Once known as places where college kids sought guidance on love and coming-of-age issues, the centers now find that almost half of those coming in "are coping with serious mental illness, more than double the rate a decade ago." Students are dealing with everything from depression to suicidal thoughts, alcohol abuse, and eating disorders. They're also taking more psychiatric medications than ever before. Are young people facing more psychological problems, or simply reporting them more? Here are four theories to explain the surge in students seeking help:

1. New medications allow students to leave home

Prescription drugs could be a big factor, according to the Times article: "Experts say the trend is partly linked to effective psychotropic drugs (Wellbutrin for depression, Adderall for attention disorder, Abilify for bipolar disorder) that have allowed students to attend college who otherwise might not have functioned in a campus setting."

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2. More problems are being recognized

Until recently, many psychological afflictions now considered common — and serious — would have been brushed aside, says the Times. In 2010, there is "greater awareness of traumas scarcely recognized a generation ago and a willingness to seek help for those problems, including bulimia, self-cutting, and childhood sexual abuse."

3. College kids are depressed for the same reasons as everyone else

There are obviously a "number of factors" involved here, says Emma Silvers in Mother Jones. But "young adults definitely aren't immune from external factors like the current gloomy economic climate, which experts concur can be linked to rising suicide rates." This economy "isn't any easier to swallow when you're staring down college loan repayments that will only ease up if you die."

4. Students struggle to adapt to new pressures

Newcomers to college often feel overwhelmed, says Steven Carter in, and develop "poor eating and sleeping habits," which can be contributing factors to mental-health problems. That's not a recent phenomenon, but the "new economic pressures" created by the recession may have a "snowball effect" that creates more stress and makes students more likely to "overload themselves."

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