More students seek therapy at UM, nationally

University of Miami students, like college students throughout the nation, are seeking help in record numbers for a variety of mental health ailments including eating disorders, anxiety and academic problems.
Since 1989, the number of students counseled at UM jumped from 467 to 964 in 2001-2002 – an increase of over 100 percent. Students consulting a psychiatrist for help showed even a bigger increase – soaring from just 35 students in the 1989-1990 school year to 276 in 2001-2002.
“Mental health issues have been on the forefront for years now,” said Dr. Malcolm Kahn, director of UM’s counseling center. “More and more students are seeking help for their problems, and the variety of problems has also changed over the years.”
The situation at UM mirrors recent national studies, which also reveal dramatic increases in the number of students seeking treatment for various mental problems.
College students frequently have more complex problems today than they did over a decade ago, including both the typical or expected college student problems – difficulties in relationships and developmental issues – as well as the more severe problems, such as depression, sexual assault and thoughts of suicide, according to a study conducted by the Professional Psychology: Research and Practice journal.
The February study looked at 13,257 college students attending a large midwestern university that sought help from 1988-2001 (before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks).
In that study, some increases found were dramatic. The number of students seen each year with depression doubled, while the number of suicidal students tripled and the number of students seen after a sexual assault quadrupled.
Up until 1994, relationship problems were the most frequently reported client problem, according to the study. But since that time, stress and anxiety problems were reported more frequently than relationship problems, with dramatic increases seen in the number of students seeking help for depression, suicidal thoughts and sexual assault.
The study revealed that seven areas, including relationship problems, stress/anxiety, family issues, physical problems, personality disorders, suicidal thought and sexual assault, showed dramatic increases at the beginning of the survey but leveled off toward the end.
Depression, grief and academic and development problems increased throughout all time periods of the survey. Substance abuse, eating disorders, legal problems and chronic mental illness showed no change.
“If these observed patterns of change prove to be consistent with those at other counseling centers, then it is evident that therapists in counseling centers are seeing students with more critical needs than a decade ago,” the study said.
Meanwhile, UM seems to be following that same pattern. The UM counseling center says some of the leading issues plaguing UM students are:
– Depression
– Anxiety
– Academic problems
– Family problems
– Loss of significant relationship
– Social and dating problems
– Eating disorders
– Low self esteem
– Academic anxiety and grief reaction.
The increase in the number of UM students seeking help for mental health problems does not mean things have gotten out of control, Dr. Pamela Deroian, assistant director of UM’s counseling center, said.
“The increase in students over the years has risen significantly, but it’s not necessarily because more students have more problems,” she said. “The changing times is what I believe is the cause for the increase.
“The 1980s brought about a different dynamic. In the ’80s you saw a lot of changes. You saw the change in the American household as the divorce rate hit 50 percent, mothers started going back to work, counseling became much more acceptable and that was also the time when all the medications you see now started to come out.
“I don’t see it as a growing problem. I just see it as a byproduct of the changes back in the 1980s. In addition, I think the counseling center is doing much more outreach on the campus, which raises awareness and which I think also raises the number of students who come in and seek help.”
Other reasons for the increase can be attributed to parental pressure and stress in the form of financial problems, terrorism and substance abuse, she said.
But of the biggest concern and the greatest increase is anxiety and depression, said Deroian.
“I do know that depression is definitely a very, very common issue that people are presented with,” she said. “I do know that stress is another common problem. Anxiety as a result of stress can develop. If you can’t handle stress than you can develop lots of different types of problems.
“If I had to say the two of the most common things students come to the counseling center for, it’s depression and stress-related reactions. I think just trying to maneuver college life can be very stressful. The rise in mental health problems has caught the attention of the University administration, which is working on finding an effective way to help combat the growing issue and give more resources for the student body to take advantage of.”
Dr. Patricia Whitely, vice president for student affairs, said she has been concerned with this growing trend and has worked with the counseling center and other groups in order to find a way to alleviate the problem.
“Student mental health is a major concern of ours,” Whitely said. “It’s an issue we have to deal with as a result of the culture. As more people grow up with it, we have to figure out more of an awareness campaign, education and doing things differently.
“I think 10 or 12 years ago it was also a bigger deal to go to the counseling center, but I think now students grow up with now, ‘Hey, if I need help, I’m going to go find it.’ I also think there’s a consumer mentality, ‘I pay for the service, I might as well use it.’ That is good. It’s a positive. I think it’s great. Everyone can benefit from therapy here and there.”
And experts point out there is some good news. Despite the soaring increase in students seeking help over the last decade, numbers seem to be leveling off, and the number of suicide attempts related to mental health has shown a decrease.
“We see everything,” Whitely said. “There’s everything from attempted suicide to drug overdose, to psychotic behavior. This year, especially in the spring semester, we’ve been delighted to see a decrease in the number of hospitalizations and the number of students who have withdrawn from the University. And actually, our counseling numbers, while not decreasing, are not increasing at the rapid pace that they were.”

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Next issue: programs at UM to help students deal with their mental health problems.