PHILADELPHIA -- College and university counselors say more and more students are seeking help for depression and suicidal inclinations, but they see no concurrent spike in the number of campus suicides.
Studies have found that college students are less likely to commit suicide than other 18- to 22-year-olds.
Peter Filicetti, director of counseling at La Salle University, said college counselors have noted a significant rise in students seeking help for depression and other psychopathological illnesses.
The increase may reflect better identification of mental illness generally, according to Heidi Levine, a health counselor at Radford University in Virginia and chair of the American College Personnel Association's commission for counseling and psychological services.
Not only are depression and other illnesses identified sooner, but there are more medications to treat them, so many people who might otherwise have been unable to attend college are now part of the campus scene, Levine said.
Levine said that college-age students -- those 18 to 22 years old -- are naturally more likely to need care than students in other age groups.
The younger students are arriving on campus at an age when a genetic predisposition to mental illness is more likely to emerge.
In addition, she said, the added stress of leaving home for the first time and facing tough new academic challenges can be a factor.
"People forget just how stressful college life can be," Levine said.
53% report depression
John Westefeld, a professor at the University of Iowa, found in a recent study of four schools that 53 percent of students said they had experienced depression at some point in college, and 8.5 percent said they had thought of committing suicide.
Despite the pressures, student suicide rates appear to be lower than for the public at large.
Morton M. Silverman, director of the student counseling center at the University of Chicago, studied 261 suicides that occurred at 12 Midwestern campuses between 1980 and 1990. Silverman found that the overall suicide rate of 7.5 per 100,000 was only half the rate for the same age group nationally.
Silverman concluded that the suicide rate for college students is lower because counseling services are readily available on campuses, the school environment provides peer support, college officials restrict the availability of alcohol, and many colleges prohibit firearms on campus.
Taking more precautions
Some schools take further precautions. At the University of Pennsylvania, windows in high-rise campus dorms are constructed so they cannot open entirely.
Because of a spate of highly publicized suicides recently at such elite schools as Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, schools are reassessing their strategies for providing counseling services.
Graduate programs, too, are reviewing whether graduate students' intense reliance on the approval of one person -- the professor advising them on their dissertations -- should be addressed.
Ilene Rosenstein, director of counseling at Penn, said her office started a campaign to get students and faculty to take seriously the signs of depression and suicidal behavior among their peers.