Taking Depression on; Mental Health: Emotional Wellness Has Become a Big Topic on Campus. Suicides and Litigation Have Forced the Issue. What Students and Parents Must Know

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On the long list of worries Mom and Dad have when a child goes to college--grades, homesickness, partying--there's a new issue: the apparent rise in mental illness on campus. More than 1,100 college students commit suicide each year, according to estimates by mental-health groups. And even when students aren't in acute distress, they're suffering in surprisingly large numbers. In a 2003 survey by the American College Health Association, more than 40 percent of students reported feeling "so depressed, it was difficult to function" at least once during the year; 30 percent said they were suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression.

While there's debate over why the numbers seem to be rising, there's also concern that colleges aren't dealing with the problem. In January the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, published a widely discussed five-part series concluding that "an overwhelming majority" of Harvard undergraduates experience mental-health problems. The series further stated that the university's shortcomings in helping students were causing "a pervasive mental-health crisis."

Given that assessment, it's inevitable that mental-health issues are starting to filter into admissions conversations at various colleges. One counselor at an East Coast private high school says that during the 2003-04 admissions cycle, officials from two colleges confided they were focused on admitting a class that was "rock solid" emotionally--both to help prevent suicides and to reduce the toll on overbooked school therapists. MIT admissions Dean Marilee Jones says she's looking to enroll "emotionally resilient" students. "If we think someone will crumble the first time they do poorly on a test, we're not going to admit them," she says. "So many kids are coming in, feeling the need to be perfect, and so many kids are medicated now. If you need a lot of pharmaceutical support to get through the day, you're not a good match for a place like MIT."

Since the admissions process requires students to appear flawless, many families avoid disclosing a child's history of emotional problems, especially before they get an acceptance letter. However, parents are starting to ask tough questions about just which kind of mental-health services they can expect from schools. Those inquiries can become loudest at colleges that suffer high-profile suicides.

At NYU, after four students fell to their death from buildings during the last school year, the university took several steps to help students. Among them is a 24-hour "wellness" hot line; when talking on the phone doesn't seem to help, the hot line--with the student's acquiescence--will dispatch a counselor or the campus police to the student's residence. Families of incoming NYU students are also receiving letters asking for information on special needs, including whether a student is taking medication or seeing a therapist. The university's therapists now make weekly trips to residence halls for one-on-one appointments. By going to dorms, administrators hope, counselors will increase their visibility and make sessions more convenient.

NYU may be on the right track with its door-to-door approach, but many colleges face obstacles to providing good on-campus care. While nearly every school has a counseling office, almost half lack a full-fledged staff psychiatrist, according to Robert Gallagher, a University of Pittsburgh professor who conducts an annual survey of college counseling offices. That means it may be difficult for a student to receive prescription drugs to treat depression or anxiety, and that many students may be referred off campus for treatment, which may not be ideal. "Not only are the [on-campus] services more accessible, but the people providing the services are more familiar with college pressures," says Gallagher. And while some schools offer unlimited therapy for students, others restrict them to eight or 10 appointments a year. …