Heading off to college can be an exciting time for parents and students alike, but the start of a new school years isn’t always happy times and fun moments.
A recent study published in Depression & Anxiety has found that college years can also be a time of increased risk of stressful life events. With these come an increased risk for a range of mental health obstacles and an added risk of suicide.
The study of more than 67 thousand college students across 100 different institutions found that high rates of mental health diagnoses, stress events and risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts were reported by every student who participated in the study.
“College students often experience overwhelming anxiety when they are freed from their parents’ control and are responsible for their behavior. All of a sudden, they are in control of their academic schedule and making sure they keep up with their work. There are no more parent portals or guidance counselors. If they live on campus, they are their own parent: responsible for getting out of bed, obtaining food, and traveling between home and school and other activities,” Dr. Shane Owens, a psychologist who works with young adults and their families, who was not associated with the study, told Theravive.
He says that students may be experiencing increased stress because they have failed to learn how to cope with challenging circumstances earlier in life.
“Well-intentioned parents have worked too hard to clear the path to college. These parents have protected their kids from conflict, from chores, from anything that might tarnish their academic record or reputation. At the same time, these parents have kept their kids from learning how to cope with adversity. Having fewer well-practiced coping skills in your toolbox leads you to easier, often unhealthy, coping mechanisms like alcohol, drugs, and, in extreme cases, suicide,” he said.
The researchers of the study, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, examined data from the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment, a survey that took place in spring of 2015.
The survey included questions like whether students had been diagnosed or treated for mental health concerns, whether they had contemplated suicide or attempted suicide, whether they had self-harmed, and the number of stressful events they had been through in the previous 12 months.
Stressful life events were considered to be exposure to a situation the student felt was difficult to cope with. This may have related to academic work, death of a family member, relationship issues, finances, career problems, sleep difficulties, concerns around personal appearance and personal health, or the health of a family member.
Three quarters of students reported at least one stressful life event in the previous year and over 20 per cent of students said they had been through six or more stressful life events in the last 12 months.
One fifth of the students said they had thought about suicide, 20 per cent said they had engaged in self-harm and nine per cent had attempted suicide. Exposure to stress was found to have a significant link with self-harm, suicidal thoughts and mental health diagnoses.
“The rates of suicidal ideation are somewhat concerning. The rate of students who have “seriously considered” suicide has nearly doubled since the first version of this survey in 2008. It’s interesting to see that the rates of attempts have not increased nearly as much over the same period. Knowing why one increased so much while the other didn’t could tell us a lot about effective prevention and treatment,” Dr. Owens said.
Experiencing a stressful situation is inevitable for most college students. Owens says limiting the risk of mental health ramifications is not about avoiding stress, but about changing the way a person responds to a difficult situation.
“A person’s response to stress and trauma is more important than exposure to either of those things. Reframing stressful events changes the effects those have on a person, and most people who experience a traumatic event recover naturally with time,” he said.
Of the students surveyed, those who identified as being a sexual minority were more likely to have a mental health diagnoses, and more likely to experience suicidality or self harm. Two thirds of transgender students said they had self-harmed and one third had attempted suicide. More than half of students who identified as bisexual said they had thought about suicide and self harm, and more than a quarter had attempted suicide.
The authors of the research say their study highlights the need for better support of college students experiencing stress.
Dr. Owens says some of this support should begin at home before students even go to college.
“The best way to fix any health issue is to prevent it. Many of the problems which college students face could be prevented if they were given the opportunity to practice coping with adversity. Helping kids get into college and healthy adulthood has to be as much about teaching them resilience as it is about making sure they get good grades, play sports, and join the right clubs.”
“I would advise families to start early training their kids to do things for themselves. They should know how to wash dishes. They should know how to sort and do their own laundry. They should know how to shop for and prepare food. They should know how to negotiate a bad grade with a professor. They must know how to bounce back from failure. They must know how to have a respectful, productive disagreement,” he said.
Before a student even walks on to campus, Owens advises that every student should know the relevant contact information for campus police or security, campus health services and mental health services.
College happens at the same time the average person is more vulnerable to anxiety and depression, and Owens says that campus mental health services should be focusing on students with emerging mental health problems. He says it is important students can access mental health assistance on campus whenever they need it.
“Colleges should offer on-campus, evidence based, mental health services that are available whenever the college is open. If a college offers classes and other activities between 8 AM and 8 PM, those services should be available at those times. If a campus has residential facilities, those services should be accessible 24 hours per day,” he said.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.