College-Aged Americans Not Seeking Treatment
> 12/5/2008 5:20:34 PM

The most expansive study of young America’s mental health status has been released. And the numbers, sure to surprise almost no one, aren’t pretty. Nearly half of Americans have the opportunity to enroll in some form of higher education program, and that’s a welcome statistic. But, when accounting for drug and alcohol addiction, approximately the same percentage of Americans aged 19-25 suffer from some form of diagnosable psychiatric disorder. Face-to-face interviews with more than 5,000 kids reveal that nearly 50% of all subjects both in and out of college suffer from a mental or behavioral health condition.

Beyond alcohol and drug abuse, personality disorders appeared most often in the collected data pool of this study, conducted by experts from Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute. And the numbers remain disturbing even when substance abuse leaves the equation. Approximately 20% of the subject pool could be diagnosed with at least one personality disorder drawn from a group of conditions that carry the potential to disrupt daily functions. These chronic, often debilitating conditions go beyond simple adolescent quirks to include obsessive-compulsive, anti-social, paranoid, bipolar and schizoid behaviors that compromise one’s ability to perform socially, academically and professionally.

OCD, the most common variety, showed up in 8% of all study subjects. This number, like many of those recorded in the study, stayed constant whether subjects were enrolled in college or not. But some conditions were far more common among college kids and vice versa. The most prominent culprit in this unfortunate statistical web: alcoholism. While college students were considerably less likely to suffer from drug addiction, nicotine dependence and more extreme behavioral conditions like bipolar disorder, rates of alcohol abuse and dependence among the college population were far higher, especially before statistics were adjusted to account for demographic variables. This fact points to the ubiquity of alcohol on college campuses and could very well be used to argue for either a lowered legal drinking age or, alternately, a stricter set of anti-alcohol policies.

The researchers’ greatest concern, however, remains the shockingly low rate of treatment: less than 1 in 4 of the study’s affected subjects had received any form of it in the preceding year. And college students were least likely to be treated for their drug and alcohol problems, reinforcing the idea that the academic experience often serves as an incubator for bad habits. As the study’s authors note, this surprising conclusion only further confirms the need for more intensive screening and intervention programs on every American campus. Researchers note, for those averse to common sense, that the vast majority of the conditions considered in this research can be very effectively treated “with evidence-based psychosocial and pharmacological approaches” also known as medication and therapy.

One cannot fully appreciate the size of the problem we’re facing by looking at treatment stats. Are personality disorders overdiagnosed? Possibly. And because the data used in this study was drawn from face-to-face surveys rather than clinical studies, many of the included diagnoses are informal. But the numbers make one fact clear: millions of young Americans who are in serious need of treatment are simply not getting it for one reason or another. And college students with substance abuse problems are least likely to seek help. The best way to counteract this trend is to make treatment more readily available. We adopt more comprehensive standards for substance abuse treatment services on campuses across the country.

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