RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
In Your Health today, a worrisome trend in colleges. Researchers find severe mental illness has increased substantially over the past decade, with many more students suffering anxiety and depression.
Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond with some simple and easy ways to recognize when someone should seek professional help.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: In a way, the increase in college students with mental health problems is good news. Health experts say more students with learning disabilities and emotional problems are managing well and going on to college. But it makes the job of mental health professionals on campuses more challenging.
Dr. Jerald Kay of Wright State University in Ohio sees students who have brought some problems with them and students who find college life too much to handle on their own. Recently, he treated a 22-year-old male student whose friends were worried about recent behaviors and pressured the student to seek help.
Dr. JERALD KAY (Wright State University): They were worried about the number of drinks he was having on the weekend, to the point of passing out or blacking out; the fact that he had removed himself from all kind of social contact.
NEIGHMOND: And they were worried about his weight loss - about 15 pounds in six weeks.
Dr. KAY: And he was not sleeping. And to my surprise, he acknowledged that he had had a plan that he would hang himself in the closet of his dormitory on the clothes hook.
FIELDER: Dr. Kay was able to successfully treat the student with psychotherapy and an antidepressant. Today, the student's doing well. He's gained weight, is sleeping better, and most importantly, his outlook on life has improved. So have his relationships with his friends, whose encouragement to get help likely saved his life.
Kay says there a number of warning signs friends and family can be on the lookout for, including trouble with academics.
Dr. KAY: A lot of the young people I see begin to miss class. They're not able to complete assignments, and you get the sense that academically, they're going down in a spiral.
FIELDER: And often dropping out of extracurricular activities, as well, spending more and more time alone. Psychologist Katherine Nordal is an official with the American Psychological Association. She says it's important to know that severe mental health problems don't suddenly appear. Symptoms grow slowly, she says, and insidiously over time.
Dr. KATHERINE NORDAL (Psychologist): Whether it's distancing yourself from friends, losing interest in things that you enjoyed doing before, becoming more irritable or angry, having outbursts at people that are close to you, changes in emotionality from maybe being a pretty even-keel person to having unexpected problems or unexplainable problems with tearfulness.
FIELDER: These are signs to watch out for, especially if they come to dominate the young person's daily behavior. Complicating the situation, many students are in college towns nowhere near their family or old friends, the very people who really know them.
Dr. NORDAL: I think oftentimes, our friends and people that we're close to -whether it's family members or friends - are folks who will see changes in someone's behavior or personality or mood, maybe often before the individual does.
FIELDER: Even so, new friends can still help, especially if they see obvious erratic or antisocial behavior. Nordal says that's the time to step in.
Dr. NORDAL: Well, if you're a parent or a friend that's concerned about someone, I think the first thing that you need to do is approach your child or approach your friend and let them know of your concern and let them know what you have observed about them that makes you concerned, offer a good listening ear and let them know that if they would like to get some help, that you're very willing to try to help them find the resources that they need.
FIEDLER: And once students do get into treatment, psychiatrist Kay says it works.
Dr. KAY: The treatments we do have are effective. And young people have, in most cases, a fair amount of resilience. And with the appropriate kind of intervention, it can be life-changing.
FIELDER: Both Dr. Kay and Dr. Nordal say college counseling programs today are incredibly stretched. Many have suffered recent budget cuts. But some schools have started triage programs, systems which are designed to get students who are in crisis into counseling quickly.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.