By Carolyn Crist

(Reuters Health) – A range of common mental health conditions are being diagnosed more often in U.S. university students, according to a study that also finds students are more willing to seek help than in the past.

Based on surveys of more than 450,000 college students at 452 institutions, researchers found that from 2009 to 2015, the proportion who report having a diagnosis or being treated has gone up for anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and panic attacks.

Anxiety and depression continue to be the most common self-reported conditions. Diagnosis or treatment of anxiety increased from about 9 percent of survey participants in 2009 to 15 percent in 2015, and depression diagnosis or treatment rose from 9 percent to 12 percent. Anorexia, bipolar disorder, bulimia, phobia and schizophrenia have remained about the same while substance abuse diagnoses dropped slightly.

“There is a lot of discussion about college student mental health,” said lead researcher Sara Oswalt of the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Regardless of cause or possible influence of the higher education experience, universities and colleges will need to address this,” Oswalt told Reuters Health by email.

Students in the study were participating in the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment. The researchers looked at the changes in diagnosis rates for 12 common mental health conditions.

They focused in particular on whether students had been diagnosed or treated within the last year, had received psychological or mental health services on campus, and would consider seeking help from a mental health professional in the future.

Compared with 2009, the odds of a student having been diagnosed or treated for anxiety disorder in 2015 were 68 percent higher, the analysis found. Odds of diagnosis or treatment were up by 61 percent for panic attacks, 40 percent for ADHD and 34 percent for depression.

The odds that a student had ever received campus mental health services rose by 30 percent during the same period. There was also a 37 percent higher likelihood of students saying they would seek help in the future if they needed it.

The study wasn’t designed to determine why diagnoses might be up or down, the authors caution. The results raise the question of whether college students’ mental health has been deteriorating, or whether it only appears this way because efforts to encourage students to seek help have succeeded, they write.

Attitudes toward admitting to having a mental health disorder may also be changing, Oswalt and her colleagues note.

“Mental health, like physical health, is a community issue that affects all members on a college campus,” said Michael Pelts of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who wasn’t involved in the study. “Increasing awareness, countering the stigma of mental health and promoting prevention and early intervention are essential to creating a healthy campus environment,” he said in an email.

“If (an uptick) is really what is going on, I’m not sure what the explanation would be, but one obvious place to look for clues would be the ever-increasing and evolving use of social media,” said Daniel Eisenberg of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health in Ann Arbor, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Another factor could be the increasing number of students who are willing to talk about their mental health issues and seek help, said Paola Pedrelli of Harvard Medical School in Boston, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Pedrelli, Eisenberg and others are researching how online services or mobile apps can prompt students to seek help. These apps could reduce wait times for treatment and engage students in nontraditional and more affordable ways to see a therapist.

“At the end of the day, what’s nice here is that the stigma against mental health is decreasing,” Pedrelli said in a phone interview. “The number of cases may be higher, and the long-term consequences can be severe, but most people who seek treatment can get better.”

SOURCE: Journal of American College Health, online October 25, 2018.