UW News

January 30, 2018

Depression, anxiety affect more than one-fourth of state’s college students

UW News

A study of college students from around the state shows the prevalence of depression and anxiety. Suicide prevention advocates say this illustrates the need for more mental health resources on campuses.

A study of college students from around the state shows the prevalence of depression and anxiety. Suicide prevention advocates say this illustrates the need for more mental health resources on campuses.Dennis Wise/U. of Washington


Nearly one-third of Washington college students have experienced depression in the last year, and more than 10 percent have had thoughts of suicide, according to a new survey of young adults attending schools around the state.

The survey of more than 10,000 students at 13 of Washington’s two- and four-year institutions shows the need for mental health services on campus, advocates say, especially as the state Legislature considers two bills that would fund suicide-prevention resources in higher education and additional mental health counselors for college students who are veterans. It was the first time the Healthy Minds Study was administered to students in Washington.

“Nearly 4 out of 5 college students report that emotional distress impacts their academic performance,” said Jennifer Stuber, a University of Washington associate professor of social work and co-founder of Forefront Suicide Prevention. “During this major transition time in the lives of students, it is important to provide them with counseling and other types of support for emotional distress to ensure they can set a healthy course, flourishing academically, athletically and socially.”

Forefront and the JED Foundation are leaders of the statewide consortium of schools that is using the JED Campus Program to enhance  suicide prevention programs. Schools in the cohort are able to access the Healthy Minds Study, an annual web-based survey of college students’ mental health that provided the newly released data about mental health in several states. The New York-based JED Foundation has developed similar, though smaller, groups of schools in other states – to build on student mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention services.

Help is available by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255 or by texting the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Here in Washington, the consortium consists of 13 public and private colleges, including Seattle University, Whitworth University, Central Washington University, Lake Washington Institute of Technology, and the UW Seattle, UW Bothell, UW Tacoma and Washington State University. Students are randomly chosen to participate in the study; data for the new survey were obtained during the 2016-17 academic year.

The Healthy Minds Study was created at the University of Michigan in 2007 to collect mental health data in higher education. It asks participants, for example, whether they’ve experienced “severe/major,” “moderate/other” or “any” depression or anxiety, whether they’ve had suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide, and whether they’ve consulted a counselor.

Among the survey’s findings in Washington for the 2016/17 school year:

  • 31 percent of students reported any depression in the past two weeks; 14 percent reported major depression;
  • 26 percent reported any anxiety;
  • 12 percent reported having suicidal thoughts, while 5 percent reported having a plan to end their life;
  • Of those who said they’d experienced major depression, severe anxiety or suicidal thoughts, 60 percent had sought treatment in the past year;
  • 76 percent reported some academic difficulties due to emotional or mental health issues in the past four weeks.

Nationally, the data for that year are similar. For example, 11 percent of college students reported having suicidal thoughts; 24 percent reported any anxiety; and 31 percent reported any depression.

Such data provide a foundation for campuses to develop plans based on student needs and experiences, said Ellen Taylor, UW associate vice president for Student Life. Not all students need counseling, for example, but the information helps guide prevention and education efforts, too.

“We want to help students develop healthy coping skills, resilience in the face of disappointment and life challenges, and enough awareness to know when they need help,” Taylor said. “The JED program provides a solid framework for analyzing the data, determining next steps for each campus based on local and national trends, and the ability to measure impact down the road.”

Stuber points to the two bills making their way through the Washington State Legislature: One, HB 1737, would fund mental health counselors with experience treating veterans at all seven of the state’s public, four-year institutions; the other, HB 2513, would establish a structure and source of funding for counseling and other suicide prevention resources for colleges. The UW Office of State Relations has expressed the university’s support at committee hearings during the past two legislative sessions.

A Forefront representative served on the state task force looking at behavioral health and suicide prevention that informed HB 2513, and the organization has been working on suicide-prevention efforts in higher education since its inception in 2013, Stuber said.

The JED Campus Program is a four-year initiative of the JED Foundation. As part of their participation in the program, campuses are able to provide the Healthy Minds Study with student-level data two times: at the outset – which is the new data set – and the conclusion. Forefront partnered with JED two years ago to encourage Washington schools to participate in the study and in an annual conference on suicide prevention. The Washington state effort is funded by the Jolene McCaw Family Foundation and the state Department of Health through a grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.




For more information, contact Forefront communications manager Kristen Morgan at morgank5@uw.edu.


For information specific to mental health issues among and resources for student veterans, contact Peter Schmidt at the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, peters@dva.wa.gov; or Christian Crowell, a student veteran at The Evergreen State College, 1christianc@gmail.com.