Duke student finds disparities in mental health experiences among senior thesis students


After identifying issues with mental health services at Duke, senior Sean Woytowitz wrote a thesis this semester urging Duke to improve its mental health services.

The dissertation, titled “Comparing experiences with mental health problems to perceptions of their prevalence,” presents data that Woytowitz collected through an experience and perception survey. The responses revealed that Duke students suffer from major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder at higher rates than Americans of the same age. Additionally, the study identified differences in the prevalence of mental illness by major, income, size of social circle, and religion, and acknowledges some misconceptions held by Duke students.

“[Duke] can use those results to determine who they need to help and actively help them,” Woytowitz said.

His research indicated that more non-STEM majors reported being treated for anxiety than STEM majors.

Additionally, a higher proportion of Duke students with smaller social circles met criteria for major depressive disorder. Students with household incomes of $85,000 or less were also more likely to meet criteria for major depressive disorder.

Woytowitz felt that Duke should “market the services of [Counseling and Psychological Services] and Duke Reach… to students of [these] demographic groups.

“Even if it can help two students there, it’s worth it,” Woytowitz said.

The thesis findings also showed startling misconceptions Duke students had about their peers. The students perceived anxiety as a bigger problem than depression, while the study results indicated no significant difference.

Students, including Woytowitz, also tended to overestimate the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder in the undergraduate population. Going into the study, Woytowitz expected that students who participate in two or fewer school activities would face higher rates of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, while his results showed no significant difference.

Although many students do not have an accurate perception of mental health at Duke, students who noted that they had previously met criteria for generalized anxiety disorder and/or major depressive disorder were able to “predict the students’ experiences of depression and anxiety better than college students. who had not met these criteria in college.

The thesis states that the awareness of these students suggests that they “could serve [as] an effective role in treating their peers and that organizations such as Duke’s Peer Support program should be applauded and supported.

Woytowitz hopes Duke will make changes as a result of his research and insists the study be repeated every four years at Duke. He further suggests that in the future, the survey be expanded to include more mental disorders and other North Carolina universities.


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