THURSDAY, Aug. 12 (HealthDay News) -- More cases of severe mental illness are being reported among college students than a decade ago, as more young people with mental health issues tackle a post-secondary education and are open to getting help when they need it, a new U.S. study shows.

The use of prescription medications by students to treat psychiatric illness has also risen significantly over the past decade, the research team noted.

"If we look at the average college student and their level of psychological and emotional functioning and distress, on the whole they are not necessarily worse off than they were 10 years ago," explained study author John C. Guthman, director of student counseling at Hofstra University's division of student affairs. "However, there are some students who are outliers and they have some difficulty in some areas. And these relatively few students that present in significant distress seem to have increased to a greater percentage than they were a decade ago."

Guthman and his colleagues are to report their findings Thursday at the American Psychological Association annual meeting, in San Diego.

The authors noted that their observations appear to be in line with what mental health professionals have observed and reported anecdotally in recent years.

To get a handle on the current state of affairs, Guthman and his team analyzed diagnostic records concerning nearly 3,300 undergraduate and graduate students who had sought college counseling at some point in the 10 years between 1997 and 2009.

After examining intake information concerning mental disorders, suicidal tendencies and behavioral reports, the team determined that over the years most students had been diagnosed with mood and anxiety disorders and that, on average, the nature of these cases had remained relatively mild over time.

That said, Guthman and his associates did note a slight rise in the number of in-counseling students who were diagnosed with a single mental disorder, bumping up from 93 percent in 1998 to 96 percent in 2009.

In addition, among those students who sought counseling, the percentage who suffered from moderate to severe depression had risen over the years, from 34 percent to 41 percent, they found.

What's more, while just 11 percent of students in counseling had been prescribed psychiatric medications in 1998 (for depression, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), that figure had risen to 24 percent by 2009.

One silver lining: Among students in counseling, the percentage who reported having had suicidal thoughts during the first two weeks of treatment had declined over the decade, from 26 percent in 1998 to just 11 percent by 2009, a drop the researcher attributed to improvements in suicide prevention treatment and outreach.

Although the study team did not pinpoint exactly what accounts for the apparent changes, Guthman offered up some theories.

"First of all, maybe expectations are such that in general more people are attempting to get a college degree, as it's become more essential to employment," he said. "It could also be that colleges are seen as more supportive environments, and there is more outreach to help students than a decade ago," he added.

"It could also be that medications have improved, and students that may not have been able to go to campus a decade back are now able to function well enough to go and succeed," Guthman added. "Or it could be a function of the national health-care crisis -- that folks just aren't able to access support in other areas of their life, and so they seek help when they get on a college campus."

Lawrence Marks, a staff psychologist at the University of Central Florida's Counseling Center, said that all of these factors are probably contributing to the current state of affairs.

"I'm glad to hear this empirical data is being put out there, because I know that when you informally ask clinicians in university counseling centers it seems that everyone is seeing an increase in the severity and an increased demand for services," he noted. "Of course, universities have grown in student body over the years, so it's hard to measure increased service use as there is typically a much larger student population to deal with, as is certainly the case on our campus."

But, Marks added, "I do think that counseling centers are doing a better job letting students know they are there. And, to some degree, some of the stigma surrounding these services has dissipated over the years. So we're certainly seeing a greater accessing of services today than we did before."

More information

For more on college campuses and mental health, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.