Rate of PTSD among college students doubled, report finds

From 2017 to 2022, the share of U.S. college students diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) more than doubled, rising from 3.4% to 7.5% as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted higher education, according to a recent report from researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The report analyzes the responses of more than 39,000 students, across 332 U.S. higher education institutions, who participated in the annual Healthy Minds web-based survey. 

“The magnitude of this rise is indeed shocking,” Yusen Zhai, lead author of the research, tells The New York Times.

PTSD is caused by direct and indirect exposure to traumatic events. In any given year, the prevalence of PTSD in the U.S. population hovers around 5%, according to the results of a survey by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2012-13. More women (8%) than men (4%) experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Symptoms include intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, avoidance, and panic attacks, lasting over a month after the trauma occurred. 

Examining root causes, treatment

The recent increase in PTSD among college students may be due to a combination of “broader societal stressors,” says Zhai, assistant professor of counseling and director of the UAB Community Counseling Clinic. Those stressors include racial trauma, campus shootings, and loss of loved ones from the pandemic, the report says.

The findings also showed a statistically significant rise (from 0.2% to 0.7%) in the percentage of college students experiencing Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), a mental condition similar to PTSD that is diagnosed less than a month after a trauma. Clinicians are exploring whether pandemic-induced disruptions, including social isolation, a general fear of infections, and loss of housing and income, have caused general despair among young people and short-circuited their ability to deal with additional stress.

“Midway through this study, there may have been legitimately more trauma and death,” Stephen P. Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, tells the Times. “With the general mental health deterioration, is it harder to cope with traumatic stressors if you do get exposed to them?”

Experts say the report’s findings point to a need for more PTSD treatment on college campuses. During the pandemic, more people sought mental health care, as teletherapy increased access to clinicians, according to a large 2023 study of insurance claims between 2019-22, the Times reported. Treatment for anxiety disorder experienced the steepest increase, followed by PTSD, bipolar disorder, and depression.

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