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February 3, 2011

Mental Health in the Classroom:

Survey shows more students arrive with mental health problems

More and more students are arriving on college campuses with mental health problems, and the trend shows no sign of abating.

For 29 years, Robert Gallagher, a School of Education faculty member and former vice chancellor for Student Affairs, has overseen the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors. The annual survey draws from 320 colleges and universities, representing 2.75 million students who have available counseling services at their institutions.

The 2010 survey revealed that 10.8 percent of students received personal counseling and 38.3 percent were seen in other contexts such as workshops, orientations and classroom presentations.

Robert Gallagher

Robert Gallagher

The survey found that 90.5 percent of directors reported rising numbers of students coming to college counseling centers with serious psychological problems — currently 44 percent of the students seen at counseling centers fall into this category. Of these, 6 percent have impairment so severe they cannot remain in school without extensive psychological assistance. The directors reported 37.7 percent of the students seen experienced severe distress such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks or suicidal ideation, but were able to be treated successfully.

Directors surveyed reported that a total of 2,200 students were hospitalized for psychological reasons during 2007, an average of almost eight students per school. In 2001, that figure was five students per school.

The number of distressed students has been on the rise for years, said Gallagher, who directed the University Counseling Center for 25 years. “It goes back to 1988 when I first began noticing in our counseling center that we were seeing more students with more serious problems and that it was taking up more and more of our time.  I  asked  on  my  survey whether other schools were experiencing the same thing.

“At that time, 56 percent of the counseling center directors reported that they, too, were seeing this trend. Now, for the last five years or more, it’s been up over 90 percent.”

Students with mental health problems adversely affect academic achievement, classroom management and student retention as well as the individual, he said. “Mental health problems can impact negatively on a student’s physical, emotional, cognitive and social well-being and in some cases can lead to violent acting out or suicide.”

Gallagher noted that when he started his career more than four decades ago, counseling centers did a lot of career and academic counseling along with some personal counseling. “Now, almost all counseling centers are spending the vast majority of the time dealing with mental health issues,” he said.

Why the change? “I see a lot of different things,” he said. “Recent generations have been so over-protective of kids, parents smoothing out all the bumps for them, and when they get out in the real world they have a harder time adjusting to the stresses.

“Another big issue is that an awful lot of students are now getting treatment in high school and they’re on psychiatric meds,” he said.

“These are students that are bright and capable — as long as they stay on their meds. Sometimes the meds aren’t working, or they go off the meds and that’s where the problems come in.”

There’s also a trend of growing up too soon and doing things before they’re mature enough to handle them, he said.

“They’re drinking earlier, they’re having sex earlier, they’re getting into marijuana earlier, those kinds of issues. Some of them have very severe drinking problems by the time they arrive here. And it does impact on their success. As they struggle with that, they’re much more likely to have more serious psychological problems.”

The full 2010 survey report is available at


Another survey indicates that the trends Gallagher is observing seem likely to continue.

The most recent Freshman National Norms survey, released last month by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, found that record numbers of freshmen entering college in fall 2010  — nearly 1 in 10 — expected to seek personal counseling while in college. That represents an increase of nearly 50 percent compared with 40 years ago, when the UCLA survey first posed the question.

Freshmen reporting disabilities also are at record levels and on the rise, with “hidden” disabilities at the top of the list. The survey found more students self-identified as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (5 percent) or a psychological disorder (3.8 percent) than any other disability or condition. Learning disabilities ranked third at 2.9 percent.

The 2010 freshman norms are based on the responses of more than 200,000 first-time, full-time students at 279 baccalaureate institutions and the data statistically adjusted to reflect the 1.5 million first-year students who entered four-year colleges in 2010.

—Peter Hart & Kimberly K. Barlow

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