For many young people, the excitement of attending college is often followed by the stress brought on by new challenges.
"There's definitely a lot of anxiety and homesickness that comes with going to college for the first time, especially when going to college in a different city or a different state," said Mary Ryu, 20, a second-year public relations and advertising major at Loyola University Chicago.
But such anxieties can be a sign of a more serious emotional problem such as depression, a condition that recent studies indicate many schools have failed to fully address.
According to a report published in the January issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, about a quarter of all students who visited an on-campus health center facility were diagnosed as depressed.
Michael Fleming, one of the study's lead authors and a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said more university health centers should conduct comprehensive screenings of all visitors to more accurately assess how many may be at risk of depression.
"I think the stress of academic performance has helped cause an increase in the rate of depression among students," Fleming said. "That's why it's important to take the opportunity to screen at every visit."
The study, "Depression and Suicide Ideation Among Students Accessing Campus Healthcare," was conducted over two years, surveying more than 1,600 college students who visited health centers on the campuses of the University of British Columbia, the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin. Fleming conducted his research at Wisconsin before he arrived at Northwestern.
The study was the first of its kind to screen for depression among the large pool of students who were visiting a campus health center to seek treatment for ailment or injury.
Fleming said that by screening more students, he and his fellow researchers found that the rates of depression and suicidal thought were nearly twice as high as those found in previous studies. Those studies were based on students' answers on general college surveys and data collected from those who visited counseling centers, he said.
"Depression screening is easy to do," Fleming said. "We know it works, and it can save lives."
Fleming's study is one of a number of recent reports to note a rise in the number of college students diagnosed with depression and other conditions that seem to indicate an overall decline in their emotional state.
According to the International Association of Counseling Services' 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, 91 percent of the more than 300 counseling center directors surveyed reported seeing increasing numbers of students with psychological problems over the past year. Another recently published study that surveyed incoming college freshmen found the number of students who ranked their emotional health as "below average" was the highest in more than 20 years.
"It's really hard to know why our numbers are going up," said Dianna Stencel, a licensed clinical social worker at Loyola's campus health center. "Some speculate that our medications are so much better now that people that traditionally wouldn't have been able to go to school away from home are able to do that now."
Stencel said students who visit Loyola's medical center for the first time routinely receive a two-question patient health questionnaire to screen for depression. If a student's answers show signs of possible depression, a more extensive evaluation is conducted.
Though Ryu said she could not recall taking an evaluation for depression since being at school, she said she believes students would welcome having broader screenings for depression if they were offered.
"I think it would be beneficial for the school as a whole," she said.
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