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The kids aren’t all right: More U of M students reporting anxiety and depression

Are you okay, University of Minnesota?

Are you okay, University of Minnesota? Getty Images/iStockphoto

Welcome to the University of Minnesota, where the students are diligent and also probably anxious or depressed.

According to a Boynton Health survey released last week, more than 42 percent of students who responded reported a mental health diagnosis in 2018 – a 29 percent jump from those surveyed in 2015.

The increase was even higher for female students. About half of them reported having had a mental health condition sometime in their lives. Two in five students reported being unable to manage their stress.

And the numbers are still climbing. In 2017, just shy of 5,000 students came by the university’s Boynton mental health clinic for therapy visits from the first day of class through most of November. This year, it was a little over 6,000.

The University of Minnesota is far from alone. A study out of Boston University compiled 10 years of data from 156 college campuses and found that the proportion of students seeking mental health care nearly doubled between 2007 and 2017. About one in every three college students in the United States sought help last year.

It’s a trend psychologists and researchers are taking seriously. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students after accidental injury.

One thing the survey (and others) can’t quite pin down is why this is happening. And frankly, says Boynton Chief Medical Officer Gary Christenson, it could be any number of things.

It could be that for the first time, more students are feeling comfortable talking about their struggles with mental health and seeking treatment, and that there are just more resources available now. It could be, he says, that more parents are catching the signs of mental illness before these students even get to college.

But it also could be that these issues are more prevalent, and that opens up a whole other can of possible explanations. Students currently graduating from high school may not be as prepared for college as they used to be, Christenson says – or prepared to pay for it, for that matter. The rate of divorce is increasing, and young people are generally less independent from their parents and may be less confident about handling their struggles on their own.

Not to mention, there’s the world to contend with: social media, divisive politics, national and international tragedies and travesties – all this and more are available now on your nearest screen.

“There’s a lot of speculation here,” Christenson says. His money is on the cause being “a little bit of both.” Students may be more anxious and more depressed than they used to be, but the silver lining is that they’re more likely to talk about it and get some help.

The question then becomes: What are we supposed to do about it?

College campuses are already adjusting to a rise in reported student distress. Boynton has doubled its mental health staff, making this the first year the mental health professionals have outnumbered their medical colleagues.

Colleges and universities have everything to gain by addressing students’ mental health concerns. If this trend continues, Christenson says, students will likely factor robust mental health services into their college wish lists. If their current schools aren’t helping them, they’ll find one that will.