An increasing number of college students are seeking help for mental health issues, at a rate outpacing the growth in enrollment by five-fold, a new report shows.
Data collected at 139 college and university counseling centers, from 2009-2010 through 2014-2015, reflects "slow but consistent" growth in students reporting depression, anxiety and social anxiety. And 20 percent of students seeking mental health treatment, the report found, are taking up about half of all campus counseling center appointments.
The 2015 annual report that was released earlier this week from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University is based on data that focused on 100,736 college students nationwide seeking mental health treatment.
One-in-8 student clients said sleep was a problem for them, a rate that is 30 percent higher than those needing help for alcohol, and almost three times the rate of students who needed help from counseling centers to overcome drug abuse.
Campus counseling center leaders have said for years that they perceive there to be an increase in demand for their services. As New York magazine noted last year, surveys of college providers show counselors seem to always think things are getting worse. And this set of data confirms their suspicions, at least over the past five years. The data also explains why students have routinely complained about long wait times to get appointments at counseling centers, said Ben Locke, executive director of CCMH.
The campus centers are continually understaffed because their budgets are often based on some kind of historical calculation of the number of students enrolled and previous rates of students requesting appointments, Locke said.
"This is the reason we hear those stories that 'I called my counseling center to get help and they said it'll be a three or four week wait,'" Locke said.
The report still leaves the question unanswered of why more students need help. CCMH concluded that "rates of prior treatment are not changing and therefore unlikely to be the cause of the increased demand for services."
"The jury is still out on whether it reflects a sicker student body," said Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the Jed Foundation, a group that works with colleges to prevent suicide, "or are we making headway in getting people to come in sooner, which would be good news."
Another possibility Schwartz floated, is that there are more resources available for mental health services on campus, compared to off campus.
The report and Locke also point to the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2004, which is designed to award millions of dollars in grants to prevent suicide among young people.
The percentage of students using counseling services seeking help for harassment or sexual assault, drug and alcohol use, or existing mental health disorders has remained constant. One issue in particular, however, stood out: There's been a steady increase in students reporting self injuries, suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts.
Locke suggested that as college becomes more accessible, bringing in lower income students who may never have had mental health services available, this could account for a slight increase of students going to counseling centers. He said, however, that demographic changes alone don't explain the trend.
In recent years, pundits have pointed to anecdotes of students asking to use "trigger warnings" in classes, and complaining about "microagressions" as examples that undergraduates today are less resilient and too "coddled."
But Locke outright dismissed that as an explanation for the report's findings of a significant increase in the number of students seeking out counseling services.
"You don't see a 38 percent relative increase because of a sudden disappearance of resilience at the national level," Locke said.
To criticize students for seeking out help for their mental health concerns, he added, would be "blaming the victim."
"We need to avoid judging students as lacking a characteristic," Locke said.
Read the annual report on student counseling centers: