Anxiety Rising on U.S. College Campuses

TUESDAY, March 27 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. colleges and universities are experiencing a surge in the number of students seeking mental health services, a new report finds.

And while most schools do have some mental health services, they don't offer programs specifically geared to treat anxiety disorders, the most frequently diagnosed mental illness in children and teens. They also don't have the staff to meet this rising need, researchers say.

"Not surprisingly, the nation's top schools are reporting that there's an increase in students needing and accessing mental health services," confirmed Jerilyn Ross, president and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), which today released a survey documenting these trends.

"Nearly all of the national university and liberal arts colleges responding reported an increased usage of student mental health through the past three years," Ross said in a press briefing on Tuesday. "We're also seeing a growing number of students coming to college with a history of mental illness, with an increase after 9/11. There is also increased awareness around mental illness."

Anxiety disorders refer to a spectrum of illnesses characterized by anxiety, worry and fear, which include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as specific phobias.

According to the ADAA, an estimated 40 million adult Americans are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, making this the most common mental health diagnosis. Anxiety disorders are also the most common mental disorders to occur during childhood and adolescence.

The novelty of heading off to college can present special difficulties, experts say. It's also a time of life when mental health problems tend to emerge.

"The classic issue for many people starting out in college is separation from family. They're free at last, but it's a double-edged sword," said Alec L. Miller, chief of child and adolescent psychology at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City.

"There are a lot of benefits but also risks and trouble spots," Miller said. "A lot of kids are not well prepared with adequate internal resources to withstand stress. Some kids don't monitor eating and sleeping properly, and all these things create vulnerability for anxiety and other psychiatric disorders."

The report, Anxiety Disorders on Campus: The Growing Need for College Mental Health Services, was released as part of ADAA's annual conference, in St. Louis. It involves surveys with 83 schools selected from U.S. News & World Report's 2007 guide to the nation's top national universities and liberal arts colleges.

The survey found that most schools do offer crisis intervention, individual counseling and referrals, but few programs are tailored to the specific needs of students.

Among the report's other findings:

  • Almost all respondents reported an increased usage of mental health services over the past three years. Liberal arts colleges reported a higher overall usage rate (an average of 23 percent of students) compared with national universities (13 percent).
  • More than one-fifth of schools reported an increase in the number of students seeking treatment at college counseling centers who were already taking psychiatric medications. "This is a problem that I don't think we've ever had on these campuses," Ross said.
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