Mental Health a Factor in Discontinuous College Enrollment

Mental health
Mental health diagnoses have been linked to college discontinuity rates, according to a longitudinal study by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The U.S. used to be a world leader in the percentage of people with bachelor degrees, however as of 2011, this was no longer the case. Many factors contributed to the speculation as to why people were dropping out of, or taking longer to complete college, but a definitive link between mental health diagnosis in college had not been established until recently. Rising tuition costs, an increase in part-time students (as more students hold down jobs while attending university), and general apathy were all previously suggested causes. The APA study suggests that a leading factor in discontinuous enrollment is whether students are diagnosed with anxiety or depression in their first years at school.

What makes this study interesting is that pre-existing diagnoses of depression and anxiety, namely, being clinically diagnosed before college, had no effect on college discontinuity. Of a sample size of nearly 1,200 students over the course of four years, the study found that discontinuity risks increased twofold for students diagnosed with depression during college.

The study also focused on substance use and abuse among students. Drug and alcohol use is often associated with mental health, and college drop out rates and discontinuity, however, the APA study found that the relationship was not so black and white.  Early discontinuity, or dropping out within the first two years of college, was not necessarily associated with students who reportedly partook in “binge drinking” and cannabis use in their first year at school. Over 62 percent of students sampled reported cannabis use. Although there was not a correlation between cannabis use, binge drinking, and early discontinuity, there was a relationship between substance use and late discontinuity, or dropping out in the last two years of college.

Even if students entered college with a previous diagnosis of depression, anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the study found no increased risk of discontinuity. In other words, mental health status before entering college was not found to have an affect on discontinuity risk. The findings were intriguing, especially in light of the common assumptions that link certain diagnoses with college performance. This study shows that what matters more than the kind of psychiatric diagnosis is whether or not that diagnosis was received prior to or during college.

The study can be reassuring for those entering college with a pre-existing diagnosis, thereby lifting the stigma that people already diagnosed with major depressive disorder or ADHD are less likely to fare better than those who have not been clinically diagnosed before college. That said, the study suggests that students who are diagnosed in college may not have the same capacity to cope with their condition as those who were diagnosed earlier in life.

This research can have many implications for college health services and counseling centers. Now that a significant link to in-college diagnoses has been found, efforts and resources can go toward better services and support resources for students to help decrease the number of drop outs each year. Awareness of the exacerbating effects of drug and alcohol use was also a significant factor and should be noted as such, not just in general, but as it relates to in-college diagnoses. The risk of discontinuous college enrollment increases when students are diagnosed with mental health disorders in college.

By Courtney Anderson

National Bureau of Economical Research
Psychiatry Online
National Center for Education Statistics

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