Students seek help for mental health

Caroline Dzeba

A study that focuses on the higher rates of depression in Western culture than in Eastern culture is manifesting in another rising trend in the U.S. – more college students are seeking psychological help.

The “Healthy Minds” study, spearheaded by University of Michigan Prof. Daniel Eisenberg, found the number of U.S. college students seeking help for mental health issues such as clinical depression, anxiety and eating disorders has increased steadily over the past decade. These findings tie into Northwestern psychology Prof. Joan Chiao’s recent research about a possible link between higher rates of depression in “individualist” Western cultures as compared to “collectivistic” Eastern cultures.

Though people in the Eastern hemisphere have a genetic predisposition to depression and psychological illness, Chiao said their culture of “interconnectedness” creates an atmosphere in which depression is less likely to occur.

“Social harmony and social support may help to buffer even genetically susceptible individuals from experiencing depression,” she said.

Chiao said though more specific research needed to be done, the enterprising culture of the U.S. could have an impact on the rising number of college students seeking psychological help.

“It is possible that the individualistic cultural value can affect college students’ susceptibility to depression,” she said.

John Dunkle, executive director of NU’s Counseling and Psychological Services, pointed to several reasons for the increased rates of college students seeking psychological help. He said a number of factors, including the greater availability of higher education to a broader population and the decreasing stigma of psychological problems in society, could be possible causes.

“Some of it is generational: these young people have grown up in a time where mental health issues are a bit more accepted,” Dunkle said.

He added the college shooting tragedies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Northern Illinois University have led to a nationwide emphasis on raising awareness of mental health issues on college campuses.

“We live in a time where we have unprecedented levels of violence, a world that saw Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois and 9/11,” Dunkle said. “All of those add up to a lot more stress.”

Second-year graduate student Kate Blizinsky, who assisted Chiao with her research, also said the advent of social networking via the Internet is a possible cause for a higher level of depression among college students, especially in Western societies.

“There has been a significant change in our culture – we’ve become increasingly removed from our peers because of the Internet,” she said. “People who are usually buffered from depression by social interaction are no longer getting as much of that.”

CAPS offers a variety of counseling options for students, Dunkle said, ranging from individual therapy to stress clinics to off-campus providers. At NU, 10 to 12 percent of students have used CAPS services at one point in their college careers, Dunkle said. In recent years, he said, there has been an “increased amount of severe cases.” According to the 2008 National College Health Assessment, depression affected the academic performance of about 11 percent of students at colleges nationwide.

Dunkle’s observations of students who decide to use CAPS support the research done by Chiao. He said he has worked a lot with international students this year, but only a small fraction of them were from Eastern cultures. This may be because Asian students tend to feel more embarrassed about receiving psychological help, he said.

“Generally, what I’ve observed with some of our students from Asia is that there tends to be a great deal of shame in seeking help for mental health services,” Dunkle said.

Whether in the U.S. or the Far East, there has been a universal push to promote mental health awareness in recent years. But depression will always be an issue, and it is often found to be heightened on college campuses across the country.

“We will always have concerns about health and wellness issues,” Dunkle said.

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