MSU Health Study Highlights Deteriorating Emotional Health among Students

Monday, November 7, 2016, 7:00 am
Ian Hoopingarner

According to results from the biannual National College Health Assessment Survey covering 2015-2016, there is a rise in mental and emotional health imbalances among MSU students since the last survey was completed in 2014.

To use some of the terms the study presented to survey takers, these health risks include stress, anxiety, depression, and feeling “sad,” “overwhelmed,” “exhausted,” “lonely,” “hopeless,” and “overwhelmingly angry.” Between February 11 and March 16, students self-reported these symptoms in the study, which analyzed a representative sample of 1,003 student responses.

“Mental health is one area that is not moving in the right direction,” says the study’s author, MSU senior research specialist emeritus Larry Hembroff, who was director of MSU’s Office of Survey Research until his retirement in 2014, and still oversees the biannual health assessment.

This year, while many if not most student health issues have trended in the positive direction - including most indicators of alcohol safety - mental and emotional well-being has trended in the opposite direction. “It’s an area of concern,” Hembroff said.

The report shows that students were more likely to seek help for mental health issues in the 2015-2016 school year than in previous years, with 77.8% (a 16% increase since 2010) saying they would do so. Whether or not MSU has the institutional capability to help or treat all those who need help is uncertain.

The 90-page study notes that it is unknown how much students understand what resources MSU provides, and asks the question: “Are students not seeking assistance they need because they are unaware of what is available, because they underestimate the normative climate for help-seeking among their peers, [or] because the centers are understaffed and there are long delays in getting appointments?”

The data in the study may also be used to adjust University policy, Hembroff explains. “If there is an increase and we are asking people to seek help, is there enough staff to cope?” he said during a phone interview. One example he provides in which the University took into account advice from the health assessment was years ago, when MSU began aggressively spreading information about suicide prevention. “If everyone who needs help seeks help, they may be a bit overwhelmed,” Hembroff said of University health services. Currently about one in seven MSU students reported using the counseling services at Olin, a number that has been steadily increasing since 2010.

Emotional well-being received the worst scorecard in the final study. More than three-quarters of all students, by the survey’s analysis, felt “overwhelmed” or “exhausted” sometime in the past year, and more than half felt “very sad,” “very lonely,” or “overwhelming anxiety” in the same period of time.

Survey data from this and past assessments shows that having one, or more than one, of these emotional markers puts someone at a statistically higher risk of self-harm, a risk that increases dramatically when one has experienced many of them in the past year. Measuring the prevalence of eight of these extreme emotional states (the five mentioned above, plus “hopeless,” “overwhelming anger,” and “so depressed it is difficult to function”) the study found that the average student experienced about four of them and almost a third of all students reported experiencing all or all but one of them.

Transgender students, females, undergrads, sexual minorities, and those with lower GPA’s were more likely to experience negative emotional well-being. Individuals who had endured physical and sexual abuse, such as rape survivors, experienced more of these emotional injuries than others.

The study goes on to say: “There has been a concomitant increase from 2010 to 2016 in the percentage of students who reported seriously considering suicide.” The number of students seriously considering ending their lives has more than doubled since 2010, and the percentage of students actually attempting to do so has also increased in the last six years, increasing from 0.8% to 1.4% of the population.

MSU students’ overall mental health has depreciated faster than their emotional well-being has. The number of students diagnosed with anxiety disorder has doubled since 2010, as has the number of diagnosed cases of depression. Of those who reported a depression diagnosis, over half of them (58.3%) said they had been diagnosed in the past year, “likely while they have been a student at MSU,” the study reads.

Stress, already the most common health problem among students, increased by 10% since 2010, and more than half of all students report above-average stress levels, according to the study. Along with anxiety and sleep difficulties, stress was the number one most common health problem and the one that caused the most impact on academic performance (with anxiety and sleep difficulties trailing closely behind) when considering the raw number of students affected. Depression was the third most likely health problem to impair academic performance, dwarfing alcohol, cold/flu, drug use, and computer games.

Not all the news from the study is negative. Slightly more people report using a helmet when riding bikes. Students are more likely to be vaccinated (except for Hepatitis B - down slightly). Excessive social media use is down from 2014, and most students approve of the tobacco-free campus policy, and there is a consistent downward trend for cigarette, cigar, hookah, and e-cigarette use.

Heavy drinking is down in quantity and frequency and alcohol-protective behaviors are up, although there is an increasing rate of drunk driving by graduate students living off-campus. Hembroff says that the drunk driving statistic is troubling because the activity is increasing, not because drunk driving is widespread.

However, suicidal thoughts prompted by using alcohol are on the rise. In 2010, 1.0% of respondents answered that they had “seriously considered suicide” as a consequence of drinking. In 2016, that percentage increased to 3.5%, mostly among young men.

With several cases of suicide at MSU and in the East Lansing community this year, the mental health of students of all ages is becoming a better-known issue. An online petition circulated among MSU students earlier this year pointed out that MSU had yet to fill vacancies on its counseling staff, causing students to have to wait weeks for appointments. MSU’s student-to-counselor ratio is one of the worst in the country at 1 counselor for every 3,769 students.

Some targeted efforts have addressed the issue of adequate mental health care at MSU. The Gerson Family Mental Health Initiative, established by philanthropists Barbara and Mark Gersen in June, will provide funding to hire Dr. Natalie Moser as a full-time director of the MSU Psychological Clinic. Previously, the Psychological Clinic and its director had operated with a limited budget, but with her expanded schedule Dr. Moser will be able to schedule more counseling sessions with students.

Part of Moser’s time will be set aside to provide mental health care only to students in the Social Science Scholars Program, of which the Gerson family was an early financier. The scholarship is intended for high-achieving students. The Psychological Clinic will provide Social Science Scholars “a comprehensive prevention and intervention-based mental health program that offers state-of-the-art, specialized care via set-aside, reserved time for the scholars,” the June 30 press release reads. Dr. Moser said she is grateful that the gift “provide[s] me with the time need to organize, manage, and evaluate this program,” but hopes that the number of individuals on campus covered by a comprehensive mental health program will grow.

MSU student representatives met with City Council last month and Olin Health Center student representative Julia Porter presented assessment results as part of the discussion. Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier was particularly disappointed that, according to the assessment, only 19.1% of MSU students “felt very safe” off-campus at night.

The next Student Health Assessment will be conducted in 2018. 


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