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Study: More students say they are stressed, dealing with mental health issues

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2010 - There’s buzz this morning about a new study showing that at least five times as many high school and college students report suffering from anxiety and other major mental health problems now as during the Great Depression era. 

The results might not come as a surprise to parents (or students themselves) who notice increasing competition to get into top schools and complain of other stresses that come with teenage life. There’s also more medical attention on mental illness these days, and young people on balance are undoubtedly more willing to report their anxiety and stress.

The study, to be published in Clinical Psychology Review, looked at more than 77,000 responses from high school and college students to a popular psychological survey called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory that has been used since the 1930s. Researchers at five universities analyzed the data and found that the number of young people reporting mental health problems, such as depression, increased steadily over the past 70 years, with the most frequent reporting coming in the past decade.

For instance, just 5 percent of college students in 1938 scored above 70 on the MMPI scale for hypomania, which measures anxiety and unrealistic optimism, whereas roughly 40 percent hit that mark by 2007.

In a press release put out by San Diego State University, psychology professor and the study’s lead author Jean Twenge said that “students have always had higher anxiety than the general adult population, but the increase over time is startling.”

In “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” Twenge wrote about the affects of so-called pop culture pressures on the mental health of young people. The study also found an increase in students having narcissistic attitudes and displaying anti-social behavior. But it doesn’t show a definitive correlation between cultural pressures and reports of increasing mental health problems.

As an Associated Press article about the study notes, some skeptics say that the sample data might not have been representative of all college students. And, of course, there’s the question of whether increased awareness of mental health services and programs that are available to students now (compared with in decades past) might skew the data.

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