Screening college students for depression with an e-mailed questionnaire may be a promising way to track levels of mental health on campus, but connecting students with help looks more challenging, according to new research that found rates higher than in the general population.
Irene Shyu and a team from Massachusetts General Hospital distributed a depression questionnaire at four unidentified colleges in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and California, using e-mail lists provided by student groups. A total of 631 students agreed to take the survey for a chance to win a $200 gift card.
The students answered questions about their moods and whether they had been treated for depression. Fifty-four students said they were taking medications, receiving therapy, or both. In all 82, or 14.5 percent of the students responding, scored high enough to fit the criteria for major depressive disorder. The prevalence of major depression among US adults ranges from 6.6 percent to 10.3 percent in a year, Shyu said, citing previous research.
The 82 students who screened positive for depression were given online links to information on depression as well as resources for finding local treatment. Eight weeks later, 38 of those students completed a follow-up survey. Eight students said they looked at the online resources sent to them and one found a peer counseling group. Six said they didn't seek help because they were worried about treatment showing up on their tuition bills. The others did not seek help from either source.
"E-mail appears to be a feasible and inexpensive way to screen college students for depression," Shyu said in a conference call yesterday with reporters after presenting her team's results at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New Orleans. Findings made public in meetings such as these are considered preliminary because they have not been peer-reviewed as they would be for publication in academic journals. "In the future, we should look to see how we can reach out to these depressed college students with other resources that may be tailored more to the college student population."
Christopher Overtree, director of psychological services at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said having a snapshot of student mental health is helpful. He was not involved in the Mass. General study.
"The number of students who come to college with mental health conditions is dramatically increasing and the level of severity that some of those students experience is a lot worse than it has been previously. In part that's because quality treatment has been made available to students to enable them to achieve in ways they haven't in the past," he said in an interview. "The good side is we see more students who might in the past have struggled and not been able to make it to college. ... But that leaves universities faced with the task of providing services to a much needier population than maybe 10 years or 15 years or 20 years ago."
E-mailed questionnaires can be useful if the proper consent is obtained and anonymity is guaranteed, he said. But it's also important to see how well colleges and universities meet their students' needs, by removing barriers to seeking help -- including stigma and waiting lists -- and connecting students to on-campus clinics or providers in the community.
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