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Release: Oct. 18, 1999

Study: Depression, suicide thoughts are down among college students

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The percentage of college students who reported feeling depressed and having suicidal thoughts declined between 1987 and 1997 while suicide attempts remained constant, according to a 10-year follow-up study coauthored by University of Iowa Professor John Westefeld.

Westefeld, a professor and suicidologist in the UI College of Education’s Division of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations, reports in "Suicide and Depression Among College Students Revisited" that 81 percent of the 962 students surveyed in 1987 indicated they had experienced what they would label as depression since beginning college. Of the 1,455 students surveyed in 1997, 53 percent said they had experienced depression.

In 1987, 32 percent of the students said they had thought about committing suicide at some point, while in 1997 8.5 percent said they thought of ending their own lives. The percentage of students who said they had attempted suicide while in college remained fairly constant over the decade: 1.03 percent in 1987 versus .96 percent in 1997.

A paper detailing the study’s findings was presented in August at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Boston. The paper was coauthored by Susan R. Furr of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Gaye McConnell of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and Marshall Jenkins of Berry College.

The 1997 sample included students from four institutions: a major research state university in the Midwest, a state university in the Southeast, a community college and a small, private liberal arts college in the Southeast. The 1987 sample included students from three institutions: two large state universities and a small college.

"The data raises a lot of interesting questions about depression, isolation, loneliness and other experiences of college students that need to be followed up on," said Westefeld. "On the other hand, while the same questionnaire was administered to both the 1987 and 1997 groups of students, the groups were different enough that we can’t really make generalizations about all college students."

For example, Westefeld says, just because reports of depression were down in 1997, students in that group weren’t necessarily happier. Between 1987 and 1997, the rate of suicide and reports of key causes of both depression and suicide (i.e. loneliness, hopelessness and helplessness) remained fairly constant. One possible explanation for the drop in reports of depression may be that public education efforts have equipped students to better distinguish true depression from the doldrums.

"Clearly there remains a need for colleges and universities to address these issues, particularly the issues of hopelessness, loneliness and helplessness," said Westefeld. "Prevention workshops on the topic of suicide remain important, as they were in 1987."

Another possible reason for the decline in self-reported depression and suicidal thoughts may be the greater availability and awareness of psychotropic drugs. Among students in the 1997 group who said they had sought professional counseling and considered it helpful, 18 percent indicated that they felt medication was at least partially responsible for their improvement. In contrast, none of the students in the 1987 survey mentioned medication.

"There may be increased utilization of medication on college campuses, and it appears to be helpful, at least according to this study," Westefeld said