As students return to classes at Virginia Tech University this week, mental health counselors are standing by to offer support to those who want to talk about their feelings and fears. The mentally troubled student whose murderous rampage shut down the campus last week never took advantage of that counseling service...and the disclosure that he didn't receive help is raising serious concerns about how colleges deal with the effects of academic and social stress. Depression, anxiety and other serious mental health problems are becoming more common among college students, and health experts are calling for a more proactive approach to recognizing and treating them.
Each year, more than two million freshmen begin their college careers in the United States. Most of those students are on their own for the first time. And many are unprepared for the pressures and anxieties that come with their new freedom.
The transition to college, with the pressure to make friends and adapt to new surroundings, leaves many students vulnerable to depression, according to NBC's Senior Medical Editor, Nancy Snyderman.
"There was an astonishing report out in 2006," she says. "Among over 90,000 students who had been surveyed, 50 percent admitted they had been depressed, 93 percent admitted that they had been overwhelmed. And part of that goes back to the aspect of the teenage brain. We send our kids off to college. They look like adults. We treat them like adults, but the frontal lobe that [controls] emotions and regulation of how we behave in public is not mature."
The law considers 18-year-olds to be adults, and that is another complicating factor if a college student shows signs of mental distress. Snyderman says universities often don't notify parents about their 'adult' child's psychological illness, so they're unaware that their help might be needed.
"In 1974, there was federal regulation that said students' records, including grades, cannot be shared with parents," she says. "So if your child is in crisis, you might not get notified. And if the school does notify you, the student can sue the school."
But breaching confidentiality is necessary when a safety issue is involved, says Richard Kadison, author of College of the Overwhelmed. He told ABC News most colleges and universities across the country are not prepared for the number of students who need psychological help.
"Part of the mission of colleges needs to be to educate faculty and staff to recognize the warning signs of more serious problems like depression," he says. "The more we can talk openly about these things and recognize that this is part of the support system that everyone should have in place, the better off we'll be."
Alison Malmon's brother suffered from depression and committed suicide while in college. Afterwards, she founded Active Minds on Campus, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating students about mental health and the importance of speaking out if they see a fellow student who needs help.
"I think most importantly, students themselves are not being educated from the beginning," she says. "Students are the main line of defense. Students are living with each other as roommates, they are in the same hall, on the same sports team, eating in the same cafeteria. They see signs much more quickly than any faculty or staff."
Raising awareness about psychological problems on campus, experts say, can reduce the stigma and discrimination that surround mental illness and encourage students who need help to seek treatment.