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Scope of the Problem

Key Issue:

The Language of Mental Health and Mental Illness

Very little data exist about the nature and extent of mental health problems among college students. To date, no large-scale studies have been conducted to determine the incidence, prevalence, or scope of mental health issues that college students experience. The only data available come from individual campus studies or those using non-nationally representative samples of students attending primarily four-year colleges or universities.

The data that are available suggest that a significant number of students on campuses across the country have poor mental health and that many experience mental illnesses serious enough to require professional attention. For example, data from the Spring 2005 National College Health Assessment (NCHA), a biannual survey of college students at selected universities conducted by the American College Health Association (ACHA), found that a considerable number of students experienced mental health problems within the last school year:

  • 19.6 percent of students experienced depression and 8.9 percent experienced seasonal affective disorder. Only back pain, allergies, and sinus infections were more common health complaints 
  • 13.4 percent of students experienced an anxiety disorder

College student mental health problems are not confined to a particular group of students or a single campus. Rather, it appears that students from diverse backgrounds across a variety of institutions experience mental health problems. In their survey of over 250,000 first-time, full-time students attending 385 four-year colleges and universities, the Higher Education Research Institute found approximately equal proportions of students across the different types of schools reported feeling frequently depressed in the past year.

Whether the mental health of college students has changed over time is still debated. Some hypothesize that college students experience more mental health problems than in the past. The 2004 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors observed that nearly 86 percent of respondents believe there has been an increase in the number of students on campus with severe psychological problems in recent years. Other surveys, however, report the number of students having mental health problems to be similar over time.


More and more students report being stressed and overwhelmed with all they have to do. Escalating and unusual levels of stress can seriously interfere with studentsí ability to function and can even lead to significant mental health decline.


Ranging from feelings of sadness and hopelessness to thoughts of self-harm, depression is perhaps the most widespread mental health problem on campuses today.


Whether itís focused around social situations, taking exams, or as a result of experiencing a traumatic event, many students are dealing with anxiety-related problems that negatively impact their overall health and ability to learn.

Co-occurring disorders

Substance abuse and other risky behaviors often co-exist with depression and other mental health conditions, endangering the lives of these young people and contributing to academic failure and dropout.


Self-harm or suicidal behavior is perhaps the most alarming consequence of undetected and untreated mental health problems.

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