Mental Illness Prolific Among College Students | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Posted on August 25, 2004

Arlington, VA — Due to a high rate of mental illness found among the college population, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill urges parents to talk to their children about mental illness before college and maintain an open dialogue throughout young adulthood. This recommendation follows the release of a new study, conducted by NAMI and Abbott Laboratories, which found a high incidence of mental illness among the college age population, yet a lack of education and understanding among both the students and their parents.

A key finding of the survey, administered as part of Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day, was the large number of students who reported an experience of symptoms associated with serious mental illness. According to the survey:

  • One in three students reports having experienced prolonged periods of depression.
  • One in four students reports having suicidal thoughts or feelings.
  • One in seven students reports engaging in abnormally reckless behavior.
  • One in seven reports difficulty functioning at school due to mental illness.

"The impact of untreated mental illness on a college student’s life can be devastating," commented Ken Duckworth, M.D., assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and medical director for NAMI. "Undiagnosed mental illness can cause people to withdraw socially, drop out of school, engage in substance abuse, or exhibit other unsettling behaviors. For example, studies show that as many as 50 percent of people with untreated bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once. Therefore, it is essential that parents and students alike are educated and aware of the signs and symptoms to ensure early diagnosis and treatment."

Many students report experiencing the warning signs of mental illness, yet parents lag in their awareness and understanding of these symptoms.

Fifty percent of students rate their mental health as below average or poor, while only 25 percent of parents report their student’s mental health to be in this range. In addition, 30 percent of students report that they or a friend have had problems functioning at school because of a mental health problem, yet only seven percent of parents say their student has experienced this.

"Parents should talk to their college student about mental illness before they leave for college and maintain a regular dialogue throughout the school year," said Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director of NAMI. "The majority of people with bipolar disorder, for example, experience an onset of symptoms before the age of 20, making late adolescence an essential time for awareness. While parents can’t prevent mental illness, educating themselves and their college age children can help encourage early diagnosis – and early diagnosis can save lives."

Students report a lack of education on mental illness.

Mental illness is a major concern for the college student population, yet nearly half of students report receiving no education on mental health issues before starting college, including education from family, friends, teachers, counselors or clergy. In addition, approximately half of students report receiving no information on mental health from their college or university.

In contrast, the majority of parents – nearly 75 percent – report that they or another family member discussed mental illness with their student prior to college, however only 22 percent of students report receiving this education.

"Awareness needs to be a top priority for members of all communities, especially those interacting with the college age population," added Fitzpatrick. "Just as parents and colleges discuss alcohol use, sexually transmitted diseases and eating disorders with students, they should also cover mental illness. The college age population must be informed, not only for the sake of their own health, but also to help recognize the signs and symptoms in their friends."

According to the survey, students are most likely to turn to friends should they experience a serious emotional problem while at school. Sixty-two percent of students reported that they would turn to a friend, 46 percent would access a parent, and 30 percent would go to a campus counseling center.

Parents and students alike lack an understanding of mental illness and bipolar disorder.

Both parents and students report many misconceptions about mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder resulting from a chemical imbalance in the brain and can be treated with medication and counseling. However, according to the survey:

  • Thirty-five percent of parents and 48 percent of students believe bipolar disorder is at least somewhat attributed to a character flaw or weak willpower.
  • Fifty-five percent of parents and students somewhat believe that people with bipolar disorder should not be in positions of responsibility.
  • More than 70 percent of parents and students would be uncomfortable to some extent if a close friend or family member was dating or marrying a person with bipolar disorder.

In addition, parents and students do not realize the enormous consequences of an untreated mental illness such as bipolar disorder.

  • Nearly one in four parents and students do not agree that untreated bipolar disorder can lead to suicide, but other studies show as many as 50 percent of people with untreated bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once.
  • More than one in four parents and students do not understand that untreated bipolar disorder can lead to contact with the criminal justice system, yet sources show that people with untreated mental illnesses spend twice as much time in jail.

About Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, is a serious brain disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy and functioning. It is characterized by episodes of mania and depression that can last from days to months and usually begins in late adolescence, but can begin in early childhood or as late as a person's 40s or 50s. There is a strong genetic component related to bipolar disorder, however, genetics do not always predict who will develop the disorder. Bipolar disorder is a chronic and generally life-long condition, requiring life-long treatment.

About Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day

Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day was created to increase awareness of bipolar disorder, promote early detection and accurate diagnosis, reduce stigma, and minimize the devastating impact on the 2.3 million Americans presently affected by the disorder. Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day is hosted by the NAMI, with support from Abbott Laboratories, and will be heldon October 7, 2004, during Mental Illness Awareness Week. For additional information on bipolar disorder, please visit NAMI’s Web site at

About NAMI

NAMI supports a national grassroots effort to transform America’s mental health care system, combat stigma, support research and attain adequate health insurance, housing, rehabilitation, jobs and family support for millions of Americans living with mental illnesses. NAMI’s 1,000 affiliates are dedicated to public education, advocacy and support and receive generous donations from tens of thousands of individuals as well as grants from government, foundations and corporations. NAMI’s greatest asset, however, is its volunteers – who donate an estimated $135 million worth of their time each year.

Survey Design, Methodology

FGI Research administered this survey over the Internet during June and July 2004. Prospective respondents were sent email invitations to complete the appropriate version of the survey. A total of 1,033 current college/university students (ages 18-31), 1,028 parents of college students, and 282 patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder (ages 18-35) completed the survey. Prospective student and parent respondents were recruited from FGI Research's SmartPanel(tm) of Internet survey participants nationwide. The patient sample was obtained from a targeted ailment panel with additional screening questions applied. Student and patient respondent samples have been statistically weighted so that the proportions of men and women in each group represented in the results reflect their actual proportions in the U.S. population.



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