August 27, 2004

Underestimations of MI in College

The incidence of, and lack of awareness about, mental illness among college students was revealed in a recent survey conducted during Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day.

Survey results (conducted by NAMI) included the following points:

-- One in three students report having experienced prolonged periods of depression
-- One in four students report having suicidal thoughts or feelings
-- One in seven students report engaging in abnormally reckless behavior
-- One in seven students report difficulty functioning at school due to mental illness
--50% of students rate their mental health as below average or poor, as opposed to 25% of parents who report their student's mental health to be in this range.

According to Dr. Ken Duckworth, asst. professor at Harvard Medical School and medical director for NAMI, "[T]he impact of untreated mental illness on a college student's life can be devastating. In the majority of circumstances, bipolar disorder, like diabetes, can be managed and controlled. However, if left untreated, it can result in negative outcomes and even premature death. Unless we educate our students and work to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help on America's campuses, young people will suffer needlessly."

Although many students experience and display warning signs of mental illness, they go unrecognized by parents, teachers, and administrators. In response to the survey results, NAMI strongly encourages parents to speak with their college-age children about mental illness, and keep in touch throughout their time at school and young adult years.

"Parents should talk to their college student about mental illness before they leave for college and maintain a regular dialogue throughout the school year," said Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director of NAMI. "The majority of people with bipolar disorder, for example, experience an onset of symptoms before the age of 20, making late adolescence an essential time for awareness. While parents can't prevent mental illness, educating themselves and their college age children can help encourage early diagnosis -- and early diagnosis can save lives."

Given the apparent scope of the problem, there is a severe deficit of available information and awareness among students. Not only do many students not recieve education about mental health before beginning college, approximately half say that their college/university campus does not educate students either. Due to this lack of education and prevailing stigmas around mental health services, students continue to suffer in silence, and misconceptions about mental illness remain unchallenged. Some common beliefs about mental illness among parents and students include the following:

-- Thirty-five percent of parents and 48 percent of students believe bipolar disorder is at least somewhat attributed to a character flaw or weak willpower.
-- Fifty-five percent of parents and students somewhat believe that people with bipolar disorder should not be in positions of responsibility.
-- More than 70 percent of parents and students would be uncomfortable to some extent if a close friend or family member was dating or marrying a person with bipolar disorder.
-- Nearly one in four parents and students do not agree that untreated bipolar disorder can lead to suicide, but other studies show as many as 50 percent of people with untreated bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once.
-- More than one in four parents and students do not understand that untreated bipolar disorder can lead to contact with the criminal justice system, yet sources show that people with untreated mental illnesses spend twice as much time in jail.

All of us - campuses, parents, and students - must take an open stand mental health and illness, destigmatizing this vital issue and staving off preventable tragedies within our future generation.

To read the full article, please see "Mental Illness Prolific Among College Students" (Aug 25 2004).

Listen online to the following radio programs concerning college-age students and mental health:

1) Mental Health and Illness in Teenagers (BBC radio).
2) College students and Mental Health (Voice in the Family public radio).


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