Among College Students, a Troubling Find on PTSD

Diagnoses more than doubled from 2017 to 2022
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 31, 2024 10:52 AM CDT
Among College Students, a 'Shocking' Find
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/ipopba)

Current college students have lived through a chaotic few years, and it's turning up in their mental health assessments in at least one significant way. The New York Times reports that diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, within this demographic more than doubled from 2017 to 2022, with scientists finding the prevalence of the condition increased from 3.4% to 7.5%. The new research published Thursday in JAMA Open Network looked at answers from more than 390,000 respondents from 300-plus schools to the Healthy Minds Study, a yearly web-based survey, and also found a notable spike in the related acute stress disorder. ASD's numbers more than tripled from 0.2% in 2017 to 0.7% in 2022.

Yusen Zhai, who heads up the University of Alabama at Birmingham's community counseling center and is one of the study's co-authors, tells the Times that "broader societal stressors" can probably take some of the blame for the PTSD/ASD rise. Those stressors can include everything from the pandemic (especially if a student lost a loved one to COVID or endured long lockdowns) and school shootings, to "sexual assault, physical violence, and natural disasters," per the study—all possible triggers for the mental health conditions. "The magnitude of this rise is indeed shocking," Zhai says, noting that his team had expected to see somewhat of an uptick in diagnoses, but not nearly as many as they did.

A release notes that PTSD—which is characterized after a traumatic event by such symptoms as flashbacks, bad dreams, and severe anxiety—"can lead to more persistent symptoms, while ASD's impact may be more transient—anywhere from a few days to a month." The researchers' findings "suggest the need for targeted, trauma-informed prevention and intervention strategies by mental health professionals and policymakers to support the affected student population," they write. Know a college student who might need some support with their mental health? Harvard Health has a primer on how to keep anxiety at bay and what to do when it hits. (More PTSD stories.)

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