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Most college students who obtained counselling in the study had been diagnosed with mood and anxiety disorders. ((iStock))

Severe mental illness is becoming more common on college and university campuses, research suggests.

The percentage of students with moderate to severe depression who sought counselling at U.S. campuses increased seven per cent from 1998 to 2009, John Guthman, director of student counselling services at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., said Thursday.

"University and college counselling services around the country are reporting that the needs of students seeking services are escalating toward more severe psychological problems," said Guthman at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in San Diego.

"While the condition of students seeking counselling doesn't necessarily reflect the experience of the average college student, 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."

For the study, Guthman and his co-authors looked at the records of 3,256 college students who accessed college counselling support between September 1997 and August 2009 at the mid-sized private university.

Students were screened for mental disorders, suicidal thoughts and self-injurious behaviour used clinical evaluations, interviews and two widely used tests of mood.

Most students had been diagnosed with mood and anxiety disorders.

According to a 2009 study by the American College Health Association that included six universities in Ontario:

  • 51 to 60 per cent of campus respondents in the province reported feeling hopeless.
  • 33 to 43 per cent reported feeling so depressed they were unable to function.
  • six to nine per cent considered suicide in the 12 months before the survey.

Source: Ontario College Health Association

Those seeking help are often socially isolated, depressed and on medication, the researchers said.

Overall, the team found the level of depression and anxiety stayed relatively mild over the decade.

But in 1998, 11 per cent of participants reported using psychiatric medications, mostly for depression, anxiety and ADHD. In 2009, 24 per cent of those in counselling said they took such drugs.

The number of students who acknowledged that they had thought about suicide within two weeks of counselling intake declined from 26 per cent in 1998 to 11 per cent in 2009.

The decrease may reflect improvements in suicide prevention education, outreach and better awareness that help is available, Guthman said.

Canadian campus trend

Counsellors at some Canadian universities have noticed a similar trend. 

Psychology professor Sharon Cairns of the University of Calgary just completed a five-year study of counselling services at that campus. Not only are more students getting help, but the problems they have are more serious, Cairns said.

"The number of students presenting with severe mental illness — so, that would be the psychotic disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder — has tripled." 

At times, the university's counselling services can't handle the demand.

To keep up with demand, Calgary's Ambrose University doubled the number of counsellors on staff in the last year, said Wally Rude, a registered psychologist who runs the service.

Marc Lamoureux, a third-year engineering student, said he became depressed during the dark winter months and reached out to counsellors at the University of Calgary.

"The motivation to get me in there to talk to someone is that my grades were starting to drop, and my ability to deal with stress was diminishing," Lamoureux recalled.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada said university counselling services are seriously under-resourced across the country. Part of the problem is most mental illnesses begin during the late teens, just as students are entering college, experts say.