WHO survey shows third of college freshmen worldwide suffer from mental disorder

WASHINGTON — While a recent study found a quarter of students at American colleges have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, the problem is not exclusive to the United States. New research released by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that a third of college freshmen across the world suffer from psychological disorders.

Researchers examined and analyzed data from the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health International College Initiative, which contained psychological reports from nearly 14,000 first-year students enrolled in 19 colleges in eight countries: Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Northern Ireland, the United States, and Spain. Students completed questionnaires that measured for various common mental health disorders.

The authors found that 35 percent of students reported symptoms consistent with recognized psychological disorders, particularly major depressive disorder, followed by generalized anxiety disorder. Despite the prevalence of these conditions, past research has shown only 15 to 20 percent of students will seek treatment.

“The finding that one-third of students from multiple countries screened positive for at least one of six mental health disorders represents a key global mental health issue,” says first author Randy P. Auerbach, of Columbia University, in an APA release. “While effective care is important, the number of students who need treatment for these disorders far exceeds the resources of most counseling centers, resulting in a substantial unmet need for mental health treatment among college students. Considering that students are a key population for determining the economic success of a country, colleges must take a greater urgency in addressing this issue.”

Auerbach says many university systems are operating at capacity and students tend to seek treatment during the middle of the semester, leading to an overflow of patients waiting for clinicians. Internet-based clinical tools, such as online cognitive behavioral therapy, could be beneficial for students waiting among these backlogged systems, or for those who feel uncomfortable seeking help in person on their campuses.

“Our long-term goal is to develop predictive models to determine which students will respond to different types of interventions,” says Auerbach. “It is incumbent on us to think of innovative ways to reduce stigma and increase access to tools that may help students better manage stress.”

The full study was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.