A recent study shows college students have more severe mental disorders than they did 10 years ago. But this news may not be as depressing as it seems.
According to ScienceDaily, study author John Guthman and his team studied medical records of 3,256 students who went to a particular university counseling center between 1997 and 2009. students in 2009 were slightly more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder than those who visited the center earlier, and in general, the percentage suffering from severe distress went up over time. Says Guthman,
Overall, the average quality of depression and anxiety experienced by students in counseling has remained constant and relatively mild during the last decade. However, the percentage of students with moderate to severe depression has gone up from 34 to 41 percent. These outliers often require significantly more resources and may contribute greatly to the misperception that the average student is in distress.
So basically, the kids are all right, except that those who aren't all right are a little bit less all right than before. But does this mean college is more stressful than it used to be, or that college-age people in general have more severe problems? Maybe not: explains ScienceDaily, "The rise in the more severe cases of depression and anxiety in college students may be because more students are coming to college with pre-existing mental health difficulties." And Guthman says, "our findings may suggest that students with severe emotional stress are getting better education, outreach and support during childhood that makes them more likely to attend college than in the past." That is, it's not that college is making people more depressed — it's that more depressed people are able to attend college. Which, while it may pose special challenges for university counseling services, is a good thing.
Mental illnesses and developmental disabilities are still heavily stigmatized, but one thing we tend to forget in the debate over antidepressants/pharmaceutical companies/whether all kids today have "issues" is that we have made some important strides in treating mental problems over the last few years. As anyone who's suffered from mental illness knows, treatments are far from perfect. But it's more possible than ever for people with mental or developmental "issues" (not just depression and anxiety, but also bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and autism) to be part of mainstream society and do mainstream-society things like go to college, have romantic relationships, and hold jobs. This means a whole bunch of people who would have been invisible a generation ago — or even 10 years ago, as the study shows — are now out in the world, being seen. This visibility may be part of why the media so often bemoans young people's declining mental health — but maybe young people are actually doing better than their elders, because at least those who struggle no longer have to do so completely in the shadows.