Survey shows increase in depression among college first-years


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Photo by Naaz Modan |

An increased number of first-year students reported feelings of depression or overwhelmedness, according to findings from a recent national study. | PHOTO ILLUSTRATION.


Experts are speculating the emotional health of students following the release of a nationwide survey shows higher rates of depression among first-year college students.

In the survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, higher percentages of college first-years reported feeling depressed and overwhelmed during the past year.

The annual University of California survey, entitled “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014,” gathered data from 150,000 students across the U.S.

The results showed 9.5 percent of respondents frequently “felt depressed” during the past year, a rise from the 6.1 percent in 2009. In addition, 34.6 percent of students “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments, a rise from 27.1 percent five years earlier.

The survey asked one item about depression. Students marked whether they “felt depressed” frequently, occasionally or not at all.

Jami Young, professor in the Department of Psychology, said it is important to put the survey’s results in the context of other studies which have assessed rates of depression more systematically.

For example, Young noted a study conducted in 2006 by Duke professors Jane Costello, Alaattin Erkanli and Adrian Angold. The researchers identified 26 studies examining rates of depression in adolescence and found no evidence of increased prevalence of depression in youth over the past 30 years.

“The youth in these studies completed a structured diagnostic interview, which is considered the gold standard for making a depression diagnosis,” he said.

Young said the results from the 2006 study contradict findings from the nationwide survey and counter the general portrayal in the media of an increase in childhood and adolescent depression.

But Young said in order to provide help, it is important to recognize that increasingly more youth are describing themselves as feeling depressed and overwhelmed.

Depression prevention programs can be delivered to people who are experiencing elevated symptoms of depression, but do not meet diagnostic criteria for a depression diagnosis, Young said.

These programs should be offered in universities because they can serve a large number of individuals who would otherwise not receive mental health services, Young said.

The survey also found that students who felt depressed more frequently reported behaviors reflecting disengagement.

Students who were “frequently” depressed were twice as likely to “frequently” come late to class and “frequently” fall asleep in class, according to the report. More than half of the “frequently” depressed students reported being bored in class.

These students were also less likely to engage with their classmates by working with other students on group projects or studying with other students, according to the survey.

Matthew Ferguson, acting director for New Student Orientation Programs, said it is important for students to be involved with extracurricular activities and form social networks in their first year.

“One of the factors leading to increased rates of depression is the stress and anxiety relating to the transition to college life itself,” he said. “Students are finding their transition to be more challenging than they expect.”

The state of the economy, current unemployment rates and the rising cost of college could cause students to feel overwhelmed or depressed, Ferguson said. When the economy is poor, the availability of jobs and internships decreases, and competition increases.

“The biggest challenge for us is helping students to understand that feeling overwhelmed or stressed is natural and not uncommon,” he said. “Recognizing this and seeking assistance from the myriad of resources available at Rutgers is an important first step.”

Even in the most unlikely of places, Rutgers faculty are looking to solve the issue of depression among youth.

Brandon Alderman, assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies, has been conducting research in his Exercise Psychophysiology Lab to find a link between physical fitness, mental exercise and depression for several years now.

Along with distinguished professor in the Department of Psychology Tracey Shors, Alderman holds 8-week long aerobic and mental training sessions every semester. Around 25 students attend a session twice a week, where they do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise followed by 30 minutes of mental training.

Alderman uses the acronym MAPS to describe his program — Mental And Physical Skill training. His database now includes more than 100 students who have participated in past sessions.

He said the MAPS system has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of depression.

The intervention not only reduces symptoms, but improves aspects of cognitive function believed to play a role in depression, he said. This includes improvement in concentration and in the ability to inhibit disruptive thoughts.

The issue of depression among youth and adults needs as much attention as possible, Alderman said.

“This is really important work,” he said. “We get to work scientifically, but hopefully we also get to improve lives.”

Avalon Zoppo is a Rutgers Business School first-year student majoring in pre-business. She is an Acting Associate News Editor of The Daily Targum. Follow @AvalonZoppo for more stories.


Avalon Zoppo

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