September 13, 2018
2 min read

High rates of stress among college students tied to mental health issues

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Survey data from a large sample of U.S. college students revealed a high rate of multiple stress exposures among this population, which was strongly linked to a greater risk for suicide attempts and mental health diagnoses.

The findings, published in Depression & Anxiety, also showed that racial/ethnic, gender and sexual minority students were especially vulnerable.

“The college years represent a period of increased vulnerability for the development of a wide range of [mental health] challenges,” Cindy H. Liu, PhD, from the department of psychiatry, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and colleagues wrote. “Research addressing access to and use of [mental health] services by students in general, and minority students, in particular, is limited. To develop a clear strategy for practitioners and policy makers in addressing [mental health] access and stigma on U.S. campuses, the scope of the issue must be well described.”

To identify prevalence and correlates of mental health diagnoses and suicidality in a sample of 67,308 U.S. undergraduate students across 108 institutions, researchers examined data from the Spring 2015 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment survey.

Participants reported having been diagnosed with or receiving professional treatment for 15 common mental health problems, as well as any self-injury and suicidality, within the past year. Students also reported whether each of 12 possible stress events — some of which included academics, career-related issues, social relationships or sleep difficulties — were considered traumatic or difficult to handle in the past year.

The researchers found that one in four students reported being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health disorder in the past 12 months. In addition, 20% of all surveyed students had suicidal thoughts, 9% reported suicide attempt and nearly 20% reported self-injury. Analysis revealed stress was strongly tied to a greater risk for suicide attempts and mental health diagnoses, even among participants who reported one or two stressful events (OR range = 1.6-2.6; 95% CI, 1.2-3.2).

The data showed that sexual minorities were almost all significantly more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health issue, report suicidality and engage in self-injury. Bisexual students were more likely to report mental health diagnoses and suicidality compared with heterosexual and gay/lesbian students (OR range = 1.5-3.9; 95% CI, 1.8-4.3), with more than 50% reporting suicidal ideation and self-harm, and more than 25% reporting suicide attempts. In addition, transgender youth reported a higher rate of suicidality and mental health diagnoses than females (OR range = 1.9-2.4; 95% CI, 1.1-3.4).

Liu and colleagues also found that although racial/ethnic minority students were generally less likely to report mental health diagnoses than white students, the likelihood for suicidality was mixed. Although they had lower rates of mental health issues compared with white students, Asian youth showed significantly higher levels of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, according to the results.

“Our study highlights an urgent need to help students reduce their experience of overwhelming levels of stress during college,” Liu said in a press release. "Some stressful events cannot be prevented and, in some cases, are completely normal. But for others, a plan should be in place for family, friends, and colleges to provide support.” – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: Healio Psychiatry was unable to confirm any relevant financial disclosures at the time of publication.