Students With Symptoms of Mental Illness Often Don’t Seek Help


Source: University of Michigan

Date: June 24, 2007

Science Daily — Studies show that the incidence of mental illness on college campuses is rising, and a new survey of 2,785 college students indicates that more than half of students with significant symptoms of anxiety or depression do not seek help.

This is despite the fact that resources are available at no cost on campus, said Daniel Eisenberg, assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Eisenberg and doctoral students Sarah Gollust and Ezra Golberstein conducted the Web-based survey in an attempt to quantify mental health service use and factors associated with whether or not students seek help. A study looking at the same issues at 12-15 universities nationwide will begin this fall, Eisenberg said.

At U-M where the study occurred, students have access to free mental health and counseling services. Yet, among those with significant symptoms of depressive or anxiety disorders, anywhere from 37 to 84 percent of students didn’t seek treatment, depending on the disorder. However, 72 percent of students with positive screens for major depression did acknowledge they needed help for their mental health. Overall, about 10 percent of students surveyed said they received therapy, and the same percentage said they took some type of psychotropic drug.

“We can’t assume that reducing financial barriers is enough,” Eisenberg said. The study found that one of the biggest predictors of whether a student sought help was socioeconomic background—students who reported growing up in poor families were almost twice as likely not to seek help. Poor students were also much more prone to symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders.

Other factors associated with not seeking treatment included lack of perceived need, being unaware of services or insurance coverage, skepticism about effectiveness, or being Asian or Pacific Islander. Women were more likely to realize they need treatment and seek it, he said.

It’s important to understand what motivates students to seek help or not for several reasons, Eisenberg said. Most mental disorders first occur before age 24, and those problems often have long-term implications into adulthood. Studying a university setting lends insight into what other factors besides affordability keep people from seeking help.

U-M is a national leader in efforts to reach students and educate them about resources available, Eisenberg said. The University recently developed a mental health assessment instrument that will be used by a national network of counseling centers, conducted a stigma reduction campaign called “Real Men, Real Depression,” developed a mental health resources web site, and hosts a Depression on College Campuses conference annually.

Eisenberg stressed that even though the incidence of mental disorders on college campuses is rising, studying the conditions surrounding the phenomenon presents an opportunity.

“Often college student mental health is framed as a problem on the rise,” Eisenberg said. “One can also think of it as a unique opportunity because college campuses offer several ways to reach students and affect their lives positively.”

The study, “Help-seeking and access to mental health care in a university student population” appears online in the journal Medical Care on June 24.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by University of Michigan.

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5 thoughts on “Students With Symptoms of Mental Illness Often Don’t Seek Help

  1. It’s really difficult to comment on this actually. I have never attended college (just evening courses), but only going on my high school years memories, facing ongoing depression. No one did studies back then for high school students, at least not where I was from. Did they perhaps conduct ones for college/university students back in the ’70′s/’80′s and are the students attitudes/problems/pressures increasing greatly now?.

    Depression in itself grabs you when you least expect it, holds on to you like ‘a dirty shirt’ and won’t let go. Everything that you have worked so hard for, whether it be school, work, marriage, relationships just start to whittle away. So for students, you begin to see the poor grades, drugs/drinking, sleeping problems etc. Sometimes, no most times, people don’t seek help – not just students.

    Or, the BP. If one were manic – why would you want to seek help? When you’re manic – you don’t know you’re manic and love that you’re manic and want to stay manic.

    Mental illness – geez, aren’t we blessed.

  2. i find this a tough call. i see distressed students quite frequently, but often i’d rather talk to them than pack them off to the health center where all these beautiful “resources” are available to them at no cost. i distrust these resources. maybe it’s unfair, but when i was in grad school, a psychiatrist at the health center put me on lithium after speaking to me once, in spite of the fact that i was down down down and had never had mood swings in the other direction (up). i also saw a therapist for a month of two. she was young and inexperienced and was quickly overwhelmed by my suicidality. i had to cheer her and reassure her. she was a mess. really.

    it seems to me sometimes that students are unhappy for very good reasons. the stressors of campus life are numerous and powerful: no sleep; no proper eating; crammed dorms; needing to handle a high work load while simultaneously trying to keep up with the imperatives of “fun;” multiple group-pressures; hyper-sexuality; rowdiness and sometimes violence; an overstimulating environment (apart from the library, all common areas have non-stop music or TVs); drinking; drugs (including humongous amounts of caffeine); the fitness craze; various extra-curricular activities (some serious, some silly); no guidance; cramming; little knowledge of how to study; failing grades.

    when students come to my office hours with bags under their eyes, or when they can’t keep their eyes open in class, or when they look miserable, i think: i may well be the only adult who’s seeing this kid every week and is taking the time to talk him/her. shipping them to the counseling center seems terribly cold-hearted. what happened to basic human kindness?

    there are of course students who seem like they could benefit from the help of professionals (not that i’m a big fan of mental health professionals, but i can recognize a kid who might feel better with medication, and no one’s given me a prescription pad yet!), but that seems to me a path of last resort.

    what do you think?

  3. Excellent point.

    At least they have studies now. Back in my days (I’m dating myself) nobody did studies on students w/mental illness. If you were a student with depression you just sort of lived with it. I’m happy that we are a little further ahead these days with this illness.

    Depression though – wow – will it ever be tackled?

  4. Of course what they didn’t mention is that part of many of the illnesses mentioned, especially depression and some anxiety issues, is that feeling of hopelessness and that nothing, especially therapy, will help. Where’s the acknowledgement that the illness quite often fights off any aid?

    Forgetting the stigma still attached to any mental illness (because if you think you’re happy, you can convince yourself you are, right? Those who can’t are just failures, that’s what that common mode of thinking implies. ‘you just want to be upset’) it really is that you kind of have to first overcome enough of the problem to realize you need help FOR the problem. And that’s not easy. Depression feeds on itself.

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