The Freshman Depression

College student transitions and mental health

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

The transition from high school to college can be a difficult one. Students are faced with not only a more challenging academic life, but often a separation from the world they have grown up knowing.

Moving out of the parents’ house, and the freedom, independence and responsibilities that come with it, can make for an emotionally charged time filled with ups and downs. As students deal with these difficulties and the academic challenges that face them, (both during their freshman year and throughout the college experience) mental health issues can often present themselves.

Studies have been done to explore how these problems may affect students and what can be done to help prevent or cope with them. As universities prepare to gear back up for school in the fall, reviewing such topics can be helpful for students and parents alike.

The Mental Health Landscape

The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) national study completed annually by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) surveys students about to begin their first year at four-year colleges or universities across the nation. Within the last few years, the mental health results have been at all-time lows.

The 2010 results, which surveyed 261,511 students at 420 educational institutions, showed emotional health to be at the lowest recorded in this self-reporting study since it began 25 years earlier.

While 55.3 percent of those surveyed considered their emotional health above average in 2009, this number dropped to the new low of 51.9 percent in 2010.

The difference between men and women on this measurement of high emotional well being were also significant, with female students showing a rate 13.2 percentage points below that of males (45.9 percent for females and 59.1 for the males).

By the next year, these results had improved a little bit, with 52.6 percent reporting high emotional health in 2011. However, by contrast, this rate of self-reported “above average” emotional well being was measured at 63.6 percent in 1985.

The National College Health Assessment (NCHA) completed by American College Health Association (ACHA) also explored mental health among college students in the fall of 2010 and 2011. This study focused more on individual symptoms of mental health problems.

This survey looked at 29,939 students with an an average age of 22.25 years at 52 postsecondary educational institutions.

In 2010, 43.9 percent reported feeling things were hopeless in the past 12 months, a number which grew to 45.2 percent in 2011. The number reporting feeling very lonely also grew, from 54.4 to 57.2 percent, and the amount experiencing overwhelming anxiety grew from 46.9 to 49.9 percent.

In this study, all other negative mental health symptoms measured increased somewhat from Fall 2010 to Fall 2011 as well.

Though the NCHA survey used a smaller sample size than the CIRP study, both show that experiencing mental health difficulties is an issue for many college students, and the presence of these difficulties has generally been growing in recent years.

Parental Attitudes

How do parents approach these mental and emotional issues amongst their college-aged children?

This issue was explored in a 2007 study led by Joanna Locke, MD, and Michele Eichorn, ACSW (Academy of Certified Social Workers) of the Jed Foundation, a non-profit concentrated on emotional health during the college years.

The study surveyed 1,007 parents nationwide (67.5 percent of respondents were female, 32.5 percent were male) who had a child that was either currently a freshman or sophomore in college, or a high school junior or senior preparing to attend college.

The results showed a general level of discomfort around discussing mental health issues.

According to the authors, “parents are less comfortable talking with their children about mental health than about other health concerns,” like obesity, stress or nutrition. The level of discomfort increased somewhat with male children, and decreased with female children.

What’s more, there seemed to be a stigma present among parents in regards to mental health.

For example, 51 percent of parents thought that a teenager being treated for a mental health problem could “pull themselves together if they wanted to.” A number that represents a worrisome stigma and the potential for these serious issues to be taken lightly.

Additionally, 32.8 percent (near one-third) of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the idea that “other people would avoid their children if it were known that they had a mental health problem.”

These results, though drawing from a relatively small subject base, show that there are concerns about how students and parents communicate regarding mental health, and in what light parents view these issues.

The study authors stressed the importance of parents both “having an open dialogue
with their children about these issues early in the college transition process and, ideally, before problems develop” and understanding “the realities of emotional problems and the relationship between biology and mental illness.”

Managing the Transition

So how can students and the families that support them best avoid mental health issues or best deal with them when they do arise? is the result of a partnership between The Jed Foundation and the American Psychiatric Foundation and offers help for both students and parents during this complicated time.

Transition Year recommends students take practical and time-honored steps like making sure they get enough sleep, are exercising and eating right to help them stay emotionally well.

The simple awareness that these concerns are serious issues that affect many students is also stressed. “Studies show that emotional issues - from stress and anxiety to depression and eating disorders - are the main reason college students struggle,” according to the organization.

Transition Year recommends getting help as soon as possible once a student realizes that an emotional issue might be interfering in schoolwork or friendships. Many colleges and universities offer mental health care, making reaching out simple and accessible.

With awareness, communication and support, students and parents alike can manage this tricky transition and enjoy the special years of college.

Review Date: 
July 27, 2012