Depression common on college campuses; graduate students more at risk

Suicides are the second leading cause of death on college campuses. Girl Image via

Graduate students experience significant stress and are more prone to depression and anxiety than other groups of students. They report greater levels of eating disorders, substance abuse and feelings of hopelessness.

A recent report from the University of California, found 47% of doctoral students and 37% of master’s degree students, who were surveyed, to be depressed. Furthermore, 64% of graduate students in arts and humanities showed higher levels of depression and suicidal thoughts. Based on the university’s enrollment data from 2013, we can estimate 2,800 of the 6,000 PhD students to be clinically depressed.

This is a high number and not limited to the Berkeley campus. Other studies, too, have shown high rates of student depression. As a researcher working on suicide prevention programs, I have found this to be true for our own campus.

Stressed students

On a single day last fall, we randomly stopped students on our campus and administered a depression questionnaire. Of the approximately 250 students we contacted on this one particular day, no fewer than eight were having active suicidal thoughts.

While the students with suicidal thoughts received emergency counseling, another 12 scheduled appointments voluntarily after seeing their scores. Ten more students presented themselves over the next few days, saying that the questionnaire helped them realize they needed counseling.

This meant that 30 students, or 12% of the students we stopped, were experiencing depression serious enough to need intervention.

Relative to the total campus enrollment, these are small numbers, but in terms of the number of students we contacted, they are higher than previously reported percentages and quite probably more in line with reality.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students after traffic accidents.

Students have a great deal of anxiety over job prospects after college. Pencil image via

We do not have adequate data that separates the suicide rate of graduate students from that of under-graduates. But studies among graduate students show that a substantial percentage suffer from depression, anxiety and have suicidal thoughts.

According to one such study where an email questionnaire was sent out to 301 graduate students nationally, 22% were found to be on medication for depression or anxiety and nearly 19% were in counseling.

At the University of Michigan, researchers found nearly 2% of graduate students were having suicidal thoughts in the four weeks preceding a survey they conducted in 2007.

Other studies, too, have reported that 4% of graduate students and 11% of medical students having serious suicidal thoughts in the year prior to the studies.

Anxiety over life after college

The most common risk factors, as reported by researchers at the University of Michigan, for depression in graduate students include financial concerns, post-graduate job prospects, isolation and lack of social support.

We don’t know what makes the arts and humanities graduate students more vulnerable to depression and suicide. Since there are no other studies that point to these fields of study as having greater risk, it may be that this is simply coincidental or specific to the Berkeley campus, or their fears about post-graduate employment are realistic.

This is not to say that undergraduate students are not at risk. Data from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a federally-supported program, shows about 8% of college students (undergraduate and graduate) as having suicidal thoughts, about 2% making a suicide plan and about 1% making an attempt.

As not all universities respond to surveys about student suicide and in many cases suicidal thoughts or attempts go unreported, actual numbers are likely to be higher.

A university can be a stressful place. Students might feel overwhelmed, hopeless, isolated and not able to cope at college. Under such circumstances, they may perceive suicide to be the only way out.

Depression on campus

So, what can colleges and students do?

University administrators and counselors should focus on developing mental health and wellness interventions. College students in general and graduate students in particular need to be encouraged to seek help.

Additionally, students need to know there are a number of online resources available.

These resources include the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the Jed Foundation, The Trevor Project, The National Institute of Mental Health and The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Information can also be found on the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association websites.

It is important to break the silence and to bring to public attention the problem of student depression, anxiety and suicide. The larger issue of lack of resources on some campuses needs to be addressed urgently.

Otherwise, the numbers will continue to rise.