There has been a bit of discussion of this piece in the New York Times about mental health issues on college campuses (HT: Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba). The article reports on a greater preponderance of mental illness among students. Here are a few hypotheses that are open to testing:
1) The populations are changing over time. Lower infant mortality implies that a lot of people who wouldn’t have made it to their first birthday (or out of childhood) are now college students. I’m not a demographer, but I would expect that increasing wealth and advances in medical technology would increase survival probabilities in such a way as to increase the relative size of the population with mental disorders.
2) The timing of measurement and diagnosis matters, and we have improved/more frequent diagnosis combined with very vivid examples. Exams, dissertation defenses, etc. are extremely traumatic, and extreme trauma causes symptoms of severe depression/anxiety.
3) Short-run economic conditions play a role. The unemployment rate in December 2000 was about 4%. Today, it hovers near 10%. I would also be interested in seeing how this differs across areas of concentration. At the margin and holding everything else equal, I would expect to see worsening economic conditions lead to decreased mental health among those pursuing less-employable lines of study. In short, the increases in depression and anxiety are likely to be larger among theater majors than among engineering majors.
3a) How does the mental health of the marginal college student compare to the mental health of the marginal person who didn’t go to college, and what is the causal role of education subsidies?
4) We consume more psychiatric services as our incomes increase, and we are much wealthier than we were ten years ago, especially on hard-to-measure margins like access to information. We have the luxury of thinking about and addressing depression, anxiety, etc. where we didn’t before.
5) As the article mentions, better living through chemistry allows a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to handle college to enroll, even if for only a short period of time. My guess is that there are students at elite institutions who wouldn’t be there if medication hadn’t helped them navigate high school. Time (and data) will tell.