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4 in 10 College Students Depressed

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

A new poll shows that pressure about grades, student loans, relationships and school work is taking a toll on American college students.

The Associated Press-mtvU poll shows more than 42 percent of those surveyed at 40 colleges said they had felt down, depressed or hopeless several days during the past two weeks, and 13 percent showed signs of being at risk for at least mild depression, based on the students’ answers to a series of questions that medical practitioners use to diagnose depressive illness.

Eighty five percent of those surveyed reported feeling stressed in their daily lives in recent months. The poll looked at over 2,000 undergraduate students ages 18-24 at four-year colleges. It was conducted April 22 to May 4 by Edison Media Research. To protect privacy, the schools where the poll was conducted are not being identified, the students who responded were not asked for their names. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The TV network mtvU is operated by the MTV Networks division of Viacom and available at many colleges. MtvU’s sponsorship of the poll is related to its mental-health campaign “Half of Us,” which it runs with the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to reduce suicide among young people.

Many of those coping with feeling depressed complained of trouble sleeping, having little energy or feeling down or hopeless – and most hadn’t gotten professional help. Eleven percent had had thoughts that they’d be better off dead or about hurting themselves.

Mental health disorders like depression typically begin relatively early in life, doctors say, and college is a natural time for symptoms to emerge.

The AP-mtvU poll explored the students’ state of mind and the pressures they face, including strains from the tough economy. Among the poll results:

  • Nine percent of students were at risk of moderate to severe depression. That’s in line with a recent medical study that found 7 percent of young people had depression.
  • Almost a quarter of those with a parent who had lost a job during the school year showed signs of at least mild depression, more than twice the percentage of those who hadn’t had a parent lose a job. More than twice as many students whose parents had lost a job said they had seriously considered ending their own life, 13 percent to 5 percent.
  • Among those who reported serious symptoms of moderate depression or worse, just over a quarter had ever been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
  • More than half of those who reported having seriously considered suicide at some point in the previous year had not received any treatment or counseling.
  • Just a third of those with moderate symptoms of depression or worse had received any support or treatment from a counselor or mental health professional since starting college.
  • Nearly half of those diagnosed with at least moderate symptoms weren’t familiar with counseling resources on campus.

Anne Marie Albano, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, said college is a “tender age” developmentally, a period when young adults start taking responsibility for their lives. They’re selecting careers, moving toward financial independence, establishing long-term relationships, perhaps marrying, and having children.

The most troubling thing coming out of the AP-mtvU poll and other studies of young adults dealing with depression, she said, is that “they don’t get help” at a time when they’re just venturing off on their own.

“They have to learn to become their own monitors about their mental health and yet they have no training to do that,” she said.

The poll also found that 84 percent of students said they’d know where to turn for help if they were in serious emotional distress or thinking about hurting themselves. Most said they’d go first to friends or family. Twenty percent said they’d try school counseling.

Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute for Mental Health, said students need to understand that depression is “a very treatable illness.” Campus counseling centers are a good resource, he said, although they’re not all set up take care of serious mental illnesses.

“There should be somebody there who could at least assess this, and in some cases offer reassurance that ‘I’m sure you’ll feel better after exams are over,’” he said. Serious cases can be referred for treatment, he said – “and treatment works.”

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