Annual report offers snapshot of U.S. college students’ mental health, needs

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), founded by and housed at Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services, Thursday (Feb. 5) released its sixth annual report, which describes more than 100,000 college students seeking mental health treatment at 140 colleges and universities.

Easily the largest and most representative of its kind, the report summarizes trends in college student mental health during the last six years. Among its findings, the report indicates that rates of self-injury and suicidal thoughts are on the rise.

“This report represents a decade of work and a new ability to begin talking about trends and their real implications for services on campus, as the data is drawn directly from college students nationwide who are seeking and receiving treatment,” Ben Locke, Center for Collegiate Mental Health executive director and associate director of clinical services at Penn State’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, explained. “For the first time, we are learning from a national population why college students seek mental health services and what the rate and effectiveness of those services are.”

Dennis Heitzmann, director of Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services, added, “This year’s report, as with all of the center’s previous annual reports, have informed the work of college and university counseling professionals nationally and certainly at the local level. The data we have collected through Counseling and Psychological Services,has helped justify an additional $300,000 funding for expanded services to help meet the needs of our students at the University Park campus.”

Highlights from the report’s data, encompassing college students who have been seen in college and university counseling centers, note that:

  • 1 out of 2 have been in counseling;
  • 1 out of 3 have taken a psychiatric medication;
  • 1 out of 4 have self-injured;
  • 1 out of 3 have seriously considered suicide;
  • 1 in 10 have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons;
  • Nearly 1 in 10 have made a suicide attempt;
  • 1 out of 5 have experienced sexual assault;
  • 1 out of 3 have experienced harassment or abuse; and
  • 1 out of 3 have experienced a traumatic event.
     

Trends of note include the following:

  • Rates of self-injury and serious suicidal ideation appear to be increasing; and
  • Rates of sexual assault, harassment and treatment for drug/alcohol abuse appear to be decreasing slightly.

This year's report includes, for the first time, data on why students seek services as evaluated by the counselors providing treatment. After evaluating a student -- including details such as symptoms, history and prior treatment -- each counselor checks from a standardized form all of the presenting concerns present for a given student, then selects one primary presenting concern for seeking help at the counseling centers.

As judged by thousands of counselors nationwide, the top 10 primary presenting concerns of students, listed in descending order, are:

1.   Anxiety;
2.   Depression;
3.   Relationship problems;
4.   Stress;
5.   Academic performance;
6.   Family;
7.   Interpersonal functioning;
8.   Grief or loss;
9.   Mood instability; and
10. Adjustment to a new environment.

The report’s additional findings note that, among seven types of mental health distress in college students, academic distress is the peak associated form of distress for almost half of all college student's primary presenting concerns. In other words, academic distress is strongly associated with nearly half of college students’ mental health concerns. As such, reducing mental health distress in college students has direct implications for their academics.

This year’s report summarizes a recent study by CCMH which found that services provided by college and university counseling centers are equally effective as randomized controlled trials, known as RCTs, for treating depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, eating concerns and hostility. However, many students don't fully recover. Given the relatively brief average length of treatment — 4.75 sessions — it may be that students are not receiving enough services to recover.

Charles L. Beale, president of the International Association of Counseling Services (IACS) and director of the Center for Counseling and Student Development at the University of Delaware, explained that the annual report's data also is influential in helping IACS members uphold its series of official standards.

"We make every effort to maintain the minimum staffing ratios of one full-time mental health professional staff member for every 1,000 to 1,500 students, depending on services offered and available," Beale explained. "This annual report's data certainly confirms what I have heard on the IACS site visits I've conducted and what other IACS site visitors have observed: that institutions are struggling to keep up with that ratio because the demand for services is increasing, while there also is an increase in the severity and complexity of presenting concerns by students.

"In the years since its establishment, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health has put together arguably groundbreaking, impactful data collection for counseling centers whose impact will resonate for years," Beale added. "My hat is off to Penn State for the support the University is giving to this endeavor. The data the center is collecting is important because it is confirming what college mental health professionals have previously known based largely on their impressions. It helps service providers measure the achievement of our standards and look carefully at what services college students need and how we deliver our services to them."

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health is a multidisciplinary practice-research-network of college and university counseling centers established at Penn State in 2004 and focused on providing the most accurate and up-to-date information on the mental health of today's college students. 

The center’s current and previous annual reports and publications are available at http://ccmh.psu.edu/publications

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Last Updated February 11, 2015