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The kids are (mostly) all right

Statistics and surveys don't support fears of a mental health crisis at our colleges.

May 27, 2007|Mike Males | MIKE MALES, former sociology instructor at UC Santa Cruz, is senior researcher for the online information site

Students today also appear less psychiatrically medicated, according to the Monitoring surveys. About 7% of high school seniors report taking doctor-prescribed sedatives, tranquilizers or amphetamines versus 15% in the 1970s.

Likewise, illicit pharmaceutical drug use is only half as common today as back then. Use of prescription narcotics like codeine or Vicodin has remained flat over time.

How then to explain the increasing impression that younger college students are more mentally disturbed, suicidal, dangerous and endangered?

There is no question that burgeoning college enrollment has pushed the caseloads of campus mental health personnel and psychologists beyond professional guidelines. For instance, UC enrollments have increased by 50,000 in the last decade as funding for many student health services has been cut. As a result, UC has about one psychologist for every 2,300 students, which is far below the guideline of the International Assn. of Counseling Services of one psychologist for every 1,000 to 1,500 students.

But rather than peg their case for more mental health funding to these legitimate concerns, campus officials have played the "troubled youth" fear card. For a century, mental health practitioners have regularly ascribed more depression, anxiety, violence and other mental troubles to young people.

In 1913, psychologist Lewis Terman proclaimed that skyrocketing teenage stress was driving an "epidemic of child suicide." In 1935, the American Council on Education's American Youth Commission reported that 75% of young men suffered physical debilitation induced by mental anxiety, while a national study a year later found youth in a "melancholic ... state rapidly approaching a psychosis." In the 1980s, the National Assn. of Private Psychiatric Hospitals and other lobbies trumpeted an "epidemic of teen suicide" that later congressional testimony and an American Psychological Assn. investigation concluded was an attempt to fill beds in overbuilt psychiatric hospitals.

Judging by the best evidence we have, today's high school and college students are no more troubled -- indeed are probably less so -- than those of 15, 25, or 35 years ago. That higher tuitions raise student anxiety -- a new UC-funded poll found 16- to 22-year-olds citing "school and money as their top sources of personal stress" -- is just one more compelling reason to base mental health funding on professional criteria rather than "suicidal student" scare campaigns.

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