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New study accentuates mental health needs

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 02, 2011 7:10 AM

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Student-loan payments, heavy homework loads, time-management learning curves, frequently difficult roommates, and brand-new social situations — these notorious obstacles exasperate even the best-prepared students. When college newcomers are faced with pre-existing mental illness or disability, however, these tasks seem even more daunting.

While the University of Iowa has put considerable resources and services in place to help students (particularly freshmen) manage the tumultuous adjustment to college, the University Counseling Service acknowledged last semester that it is straining under an increased demand for services.

It’s not just the UI, either — a new study across the nation has revealed a surging prevalence of emotional health troubles among incoming college students. These revelations about American undergraduates’ mental health highlight the importance of counseling for students, as well as current shortfalls; they should signal to the state and the nation that increased services are necessary, even in a time of budgetary angst.

For the first time this year, a freshman survey by UCLA researchers included questions about pre-existing mental-health disorders. Nearly 12 percent of respondents indicated they had been diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, depression, or other ongoing disability; 2.7 percent reported having at least two of these conditions. Almost a third of students who make use of the University Counseling Services at the UI have been previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, mood disorder, or both, said Director Sam Cochran.

Even evading serious mental-health diagnoses, the broader UCLA survey of more than 200,000 college freshmen at 279 institutions found that 52 percent of students rated their emotional health “above average” or better, a decrease from 63.6 percent in 1985.

“If students are arriving in college already overwhelmed and with lower reserves of emotional health, faculty, deans, and administrators should expect to see more consequences of stress,” said John H. Pryor, the director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program and lead author of the report, in a press release. He also noted that stress increased time-management issues, drinking for relaxation, and lessened academic drive. Aside from motivation loss and decreased academic performance, Elissa Weitzman of the Harvard School of Public Health found in 2004 that students with exceptionally high levels of stress are more likely to partake in “frequent, heavy, and heavy episodic drinking.” Sound familiar?

It is imperative that the university community cope with mental illness and emotional health in a non-stigmatizing, non-judgmental manner. In such a rigorous and academically challenging setting, it is only natural that undue amounts of stress affect us all equally but differently. Slight progress has been made in this area, Cochran told the DI on Jan. 28, but the ignominy of the past still deters students from seeking help.

Students will hopefully use both UI-provided and community psychiatric and counseling services as needed; the numbers all point to escalating necessity, and the damage to students’ performance and physical well-being is real.

Universities have a vital interest in taking care of their students’ emotional needs, and we hope that recent funding cuts will in no way affect the mental-health services that the UI does offer. Students don’t need another thing to worry about.


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