New York: Severe depression is more common in American college students, who are also increasingly becoming impulsive and trying to injure themselves today than in the past decade, a new study has found.
But other problems, such as having thoughts of suicide, are less common among today`s students, according to the study which was conducted at a private university campus in the US.
"We all feel like things are getting worse. The data says yes and no," said lead researcher John Guthman, director of counseling services at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
College life may not be the reason for the rise in severe depression, but rather more students are arriving on campus with pre-existing mental health issues, said the researchers who presented the study at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in San Diego on Thursday.
"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," Guthman told LiveScience.
"Years ago they might not have been able to function in other areas of their life if their depression was overwhelming."
The study improves upon previous work in that it didn`t just rely on students` own reports of mental health problems, but also used evaluations from university counselors.
For their research, Guthman and his colleagues looked at the counseling records of 3,256 students at the private university over a 12-year period, between September 1997 and August 2009.
Participants were examined for mental disorders, their thoughts of suicide and injuring themselves and thoughts of injuring others. They also took part in interviews and completed two tests to assess their depression and anxiety levels.
It was found that between 1998 and 2009, the number of students coming into counseling who were diagnosed with at least one mental disorder increased 3 per cent, from 93 to 96 per cent. The percentage diagnosed with moderate to severe depression increased from 34 per cent to 41 per cent, Guthman said.
The number of students who said they attempted to injure themselves also increased for 4 per cent to 8 per cent over that time period, while the number of those diagnosed with more than one mental disorder rose from 3 per cent to over 40 per cent.
In contrast to depression, cases of severe anxiety showed a drop, especially over the last three years of the study. Suicidal thoughts among students also declined by 15 per cent, the researchers found.
Guthman said the decrease might be the result of improvements in suicide prevention education and outreach as well as more awareness of the types of assistance available.
"It is important to understand which areas are changing in terms of mental health.
"We need to be sensitive to the data and plan our programs and interventions to address the changes and challenges in college student mental health."