College Student Crying In Library

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — College is supposed to be a landmark moment in a young adult’s life, bringing newfound freedom and, hopefully, happiness. However, an alarming new study finds the stresses and traumas of being a college student today are taking an immense toll on mental health. Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham have discovered rising rates of both PTSD and acute stress disorder diagnoses among students nationwide.

The findings, in a nutshell

In a large study spanning 332 colleges and universities across the United States, the team found a startling increase in the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder (ASD) among students from 2017 to 2022.

The new research published in JAMA Network Open found that among the nearly 400,000 students surveyed, the prevalence of PTSD cases spiked from 3.4% in 2017-2018 up to 7.5% by 2021-2022 — more than doubling over those four years. Acute stress disorder diagnoses also rose substantially, going from 0.2% to 0.7% over the same period.

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after someone experiences or witnesses a terrifying event like violence, disaster, or abuse. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the traumatic event.

Acute stress disorder involves similar symptoms but occurs over a shorter window of three days to one month after trauma. Both conditions can severely disrupt day-to-day life and academic performance.

“These trends highlight the escalating mental health challenges among college students, which is consistent with recent research reporting a surge in psychiatric diagnoses,” lead researcher Dr. Yusen Zhai writes in this report.

Teen student stressed over school work
Among the nearly 400,000 students surveyed, the prevalence of PTSD cases spiked from 3.4% in 2017-2018 up to 7.5% by 2021-2022. (© Rawpixel.com – stock.adobe.com)

What is driving this crisis?

The researchers point to a combination of factors behind the concerning increases:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic inflicted heavy stress and trauma for many students, including grief over lost loved ones.
  • Campus shootings and other incidents of violence are also taking a severe psychological toll.
  • Societal reckoning with racial injustice may be contributing to racial trauma for some students of color.

According to the team, these all weigh heavily on top of the typical anxieties of academic pressures, social challenges, and major life transitions that come with being a young adult in college.

PTSD and acute stress are no joke. They can lead to serious long-term mental health issues and derail a student’s entire academic career if left untreated. At their most severe, the disorders increase the risks of substance abuse, depression, and suicide. There are also far-reaching societal impacts. PTSD has been linked to reduced workforce productivity when students graduate. Additionally, the economic burden of providing healthcare for those with PTSD is immense.

So, colleges and universities have a vested interest in prioritizing mental health resources. The researchers are calling for “targeted, trauma-informed prevention and intervention strategies” from counselors, health services, administrators, and policymakers. The study notes that this should include greater access to counseling and therapy, especially trauma-focused treatments, which are most effective for PTSD. Campus support groups, flexible accommodations from faculty, and programs that destigmatize seeking help are also critical.

Outreach and education are key as many students may not recognize they are suffering from treatable conditions like PTSD or acute stress disorder. The more they understand the symptoms and impacts, the better they can stay on top of their mental health.

StudyFinds Editor Chris Melore contributed to this report.

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