Nearly a Third of College Students Have Had Mental-Health Counseling, Study Finds

March 14, 2011

About a third of college students have sought mental-health counseling, but they are much more likely to say they experience anxiety and stress than they are to report trouble with more-severe problems like violence or substance abuse.

That's one finding from the "Consortium Mental Health and Counseling Study," a survey of more than 25,000 students released on Monday by Naspa and the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University's main campus. Although some respondents were in treatment for a mental-health disorder, the majority were not.

Students were asked to rate statements on a five-point scale, with 0 indicating "not at all like me" and 4 indicating "extremely like me." Each item was categorized into one of eight subscales that ranged from academic distress to alcohol use and abuse.

Students reported the highest ratings for statements about social anxiety and academic distress. About 5 percent said that the statement "I am shy around others" was extremely like them. The same portion of students responded that the statement "I make friends easily" was not at all like them.

Social interaction and relationships are a top priority for college students, said Ben Locke, the study's primary researcher and executive director of Penn State's collegiate mental health center. He said he wasn't surprised that social anxiety and academic stress ranked high among students' concerns, especially since the cost of attending college puts extra pressure on students to succeed.

When responding to statements about academic distress, more than 70 percent of students reported a positive attitude about their academic ability, but 21 percent of students agreed that "I am not able to concentrate as well as usual" and 25 percent agreed that "It's hard to stay motivated for my classes."

According to the survey, 68 percent of respondents reported that they have never received counseling for mental-health problems. The inverse of that statistic is also true, Mr. Locke said—32 percent of students have attended counseling at some point either before or during college.

"If almost one out of every three students has been in some kind of counseling, then it speaks to the prevalence with which students have had some exposure to mental-health issues," he said. "What the severity of that is, we can't tell."

The study also examined students' responses to questions about eating concerns, depression, family distress, alcohol use, violence and hostility, and general anxiety, which includes feelings of panic and fear.

The report also included statistics about suicide: 9 percent of respondents reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide before college, and 7 percent said they had considered attempting suicide either after coming to college or both before and after coming to college. Five percent of students reported that they had made a suicide attempt.

The mental-health center released another report this month that compares students in counseling during 2008 and 2009 with data from Naspa's 2010 survey of students who were not in counseling.

Pooling the two data sets is one way to promote accuracy and compare the general student population with those students in counseling, Mr. Locke said.

"Even as large and good as the Naspa survey is, the response rate and the variability of the students who respond make it challenging to interpret the results," he said. "If we're going to make decisions, allocate resources, and make hiring decisions, then we need to have accurate data.