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Indifference to Difference: Factors Related to Recognizing and Responding to Students with Symptoms of Depression

  • Author(s): Morrison, Wendy
  • Advisor(s): Smith, Steven
  • et al.

Depression is a significant problem in university students, and the majority of students who identify as depressed are not receiving treatment (American College Health Association, 2013). In response to the significant underutilization of treatment amongst depressed college students, colleges and universities recently have begun to depend on fellow students, faculty, and staff to recognize and respond to at-risk students. These campus community members are often on the “front lines” of dealing with troubled students (Kitzrow, 2009). However, research has not kept up with the increasing practice of using laypeople to identify and make appropriate referrals, so the variables influencing the effectiveness of this practice are unknown. Therefore, the purpose of the study was to explore specific variables hypothesized to impact student, faculty, and staff members’ recognition and response to a hypothetical student’s depression symptoms. Using a theoretical framework informed by mental health literacy (Jorm, 2000), the research utilized a pilot study to develop three vignettes that differed by depression severity. The larger dissertation study was implemented with 1,625 university students, faculty, and staff to investigate the relations between the vignette depression severity, demographic factors, perceived severity of depression, and response behaviors. Results indicated that the university community could distinguish between differing presentations of depression, and could differentially select responses to a hypothetical depressed student which were consistent with their perceived depression severity. In addition, consistent with previous research, men and people with no prior mental health experience reported responding with less intensity relative to women and those with certain mental health experience. Findings are explored in the context of a university that experienced a recent tragedy. The study concludes with a discussion of implications for policy and future research.

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