The Pervasiveness of Mental Health Problems in College Freshmen

The Pervasiveness of Mental Health Problems in College Freshmen

“[C]ollege students with mental disorders are twice as likely to drop out without obtaining a degree” (98).

The college years are an exciting time in a student’s life, as they present opportunities for transition, growth, and learning. However, authors Ronny Bruffaerts et al. remark that the college years are also a “peak period for the first onset of a broad range of mental disorders” (97). Indeed, previous studies have revealed that up to 50% of college students may have one or more common mental health problems (97). These students are twice as likely to drop out of college without earning a degree, compared to their peers who do not have mental disorders (97). 

In their paper, “Mental health problems in college freshmen: Prevalence and academic functioning,” Bruffaerts et al. examine the pervasiveness of mental health problems in college freshmen and how those mental health problems affect student academic functioning. To carry out the study, the authors used mental health data obtained from the Leuven College Surveys, which were part of the World Health Organization’s International College Student project (98). And unlike previous studies that gathered data on students’ academic performance through student self-reporting, this study obtained official university academic records at the end of the cohort’s freshman year at Leuven College, Belgium’s largest university. Also to take a step beyond previous studies, the authors examine the possibility that mental disorder associations vary by academic departments (98).

For this study, students took part in a series of ongoing health surveys throughout their freshman year. The baseline mental health assessment for the freshmen took place early in the 2012-2013 school year, when all freshmen at Leuven College were invited to a routine medical check-up organized by the university. (The study involved three stages to get as many of the 7,527 students to participate as possible.) At the check-up, students were invited to complete the WMH-ICS survey (which screens for a wide range of mental health problems) on a desk-top computer in the health center waiting room (98). For each respondent, the survey data was linked to socio-demographic variables, including gender, age, and parental education levels. Students’ mental health problems were then assessed using the Global Appraisal of Individual Needs Short Screener (GAIN-SS) (98). GAIN-SS has been used to screen for problems such as depression, psychotic problems, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, anxiety, sleep problems, PTSD, inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and suicidal thoughts, etc. (99). The researchers took into account students’ academic departments in order to better understand the prevalence of mental disorders between departments.

The Findings

  • Ultimately 4,921 freshmen participated in the study
  • 34.9% of college freshmen had mental health problems
  • 36.1% of students who had one type of mental health problem also had another type
    • Breakdown:
      • 23.3% had internalizing disorders (depression, anxiety, sleep problems, PTSD)
      • 18.7% had externalizing disorders (inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity, conduct disorder)
      • 5.2 % substance abuse
  • The authors “estimate the proportion of freshmen students with externalizing problems is one in five” (101).

“[F]reshmen with internalizing and externalizing mental health problems have significant lower academic functioning than other students” (101).

  • Substance abuse was not significantly associated with academic functioning
  • Internalizing and externalizing disorders were linked to decreases of 0.2-0.3 in GPA in a 12 month period
  • Students with mental health problems who were also older than 18 years old and who also had parents with out academic degrees saw a GPA decrease of 0.5-0.7
  • Lower academic functioning of students with internalizing disorders is consistent across departments
  • Students with externalizing mental health problems who were associated with departments that had lower departmental GPAs saw greater decreases in their individual GPAs
  • The authors remark that, “The most plausible interpretation here is that academic programs that are more rigorous may increase student distress and may lead to higher mental health problems, and eventually to lower academic functioning” (101).

“Low academic performance, in turn, is associated with dropout in the short-term and loss of human capital for societies in the longer term. This means that emotional problems among college students are not just a theoretical, clinical, or educational problem but also a societal problem” (102).

Paper Title:  Mental health problems in college freshmen: Prevalence and academic functioning

Authors: (a) Ronny Bruffaerts, (a) Philipe Mortier , (a) Glenn Kiekens, (b, c) Randy P. Auerbach, (d) Pim Cuijpers, (a) Koen Demyttenaere, (e) Jennifer G. Green, (f) Matthew K. Nock, and (b) Ronald C. Kessler

(a) KU Leuven University, Belgium   (b)  Harvard Medical School   (c) McLean Hospital, Belmont, MA     (d) Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands    (e) Boston University, Boston, MA    (f) Harvard University, Boston, MA

Full Paper

Published: Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 225, January 2018, Pages 97-103