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Depression among college students comes in many forms and, in a survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors in 2013, 36.4% of college students reported they experienced some level of depression. According to the study, depression is the number one reason students drop out of school, and is a gateway issue that, if left untreated, could lead to other symptoms or even suicide. Depression is a common but serious illness that leaves you feeling despondent and helpless, completely detached from the world. It can interfere with your life, making important everyday tasks such as working, studying, sleeping, and eating difficult. Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain likely caused by a combination of genetics, and biological, psychological, and environmental factors. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), depression is the most common mental disorder.
Symptoms for depression differ from person to person. Ultimately, depression is a result of a chemical imbalance in our brains. The way one person displays signs of depression is not necessarily the way symptoms emerge in others. Similarities do occur but how each person reacts and behaves is determined by how they handle change, where they are in their lives, and their susceptibility to depression. According to the APA, symptoms of depression include (but are not limited to):
- Physical Well-being Symptoms: Changes in sleep habits, whether sleeping more or — more frequently — difficulty sleeping. Appetite changes, including either a loss of appetite or overeating
- Emotional Symptoms: Sadness, feelings of being overwhelmed, feelings of hopelessness, and feelings of powerlessness
- Thinking Symptoms: Seeing a glass 'half-empty,' having trouble concentrating and paying attention, resulting in difficulty in reading and completing work tasks
Displaying some of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you are depressed. Life is complicated and we all face some of these issues from time to time. However, if you begin to experience these symptoms with some regularity — or several symptoms together — it's wise to seek mental health, if only to be on the safe side.
Identifying these issues in others can be tricky, as students often downplay or simply never talk about something deeply bothering them, often due to insecurities, fear of standing out or embarrassment, and peers can easily misdiagnose one another, sometimes making matters worse.
Incoming college freshman are often told that college is the best four years of their lives. You have a new independence to do what you want (within, of course, legal bounds) and you are free to explore who you are and what interests you most. But with that freedom comes many new factors over which you may feel like you have little to no control, like making friends, getting along with roommates, or choosing classes for a specific semester.
The stresses of being away from home, managing coursework, and finding your path can lead to intense feelings of inadequacy. You may feel helpless, as if you are just going through the motions, especially when you realize you're not having the fun everyone insisted you would. These feelings, left unchecked, can lead to depression. With that in mind, it is important to understand how to both recognize signs of depression and how to keep yourself healthy.
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS
Recognizing signs of depression in yourself and others can be tricky. Everyone has off days, or times when they become overwhelmed with life, but most people bounce back in short order. Those days when you or your friends feel down or less excited about getting out of bed should not be cause for alarm. However, when days become weeks and simply getting out of bed becomes a struggle, this is cause for concern.
What Should You Do If You Start To Notice Signs of Depression in Your Friend?
If you begin to notice signs and symptoms of depression in a friend, there are several steps you can take to get them help. Here are some signs of depression to look for:
- They are not enjoying activities they once loved
- They no longer attend classes or social outings
- They are experiencing extreme anger or sadness over a relationship in their life
- They react negatively or with apathy to most things
- They often talk about death or suicide
Witnessing this can be bewildering and you won't have all the answers. But what you can do is be a good listener when someone attempts to discuss their issues. Offering words of encouragement shows your friend you are a source of support rather than one of criticism or judgment. Avoid telling your friends to "cheer up" or "snap out of it." Many who are depressed are aware of their condition, and telling them to get over it, even with good intentions, is not helpful. They often don't have control over how they feel during their downward turns.
It is important to seek help from professionals for any level of depression, so if you feel your friend is at risk, gently encourage them to seek help and offer to accompany them, be it to a student health center or a doctor's appointment. Remember, however, that while talking through their issues with you may be helpful, it is not a substitute for treatment, and that depression can worsen or lead to a number of other mental illnesses if left untreated.
How Do You Know if You're Depressed?
It's important to understand your own susceptibility to depression. Knowing how you handle stress, feelings of isolation, homesickness, and heartbreak may help you realize when you're becoming depressed. But for many who are already depressed, it's difficult to look inward. Depression can be a cycle of dark thoughts and feelings of worthlessness. Soul-searching and self-awareness may not always be possible when you're depressed, but it is important that you try.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you experienced extreme sadness or hopelessness?
- Does your family have a history of depression?
- Have you turned to heavy drinking or drug use to relieve feelings of hopelessness?
- Have you experienced invasive thoughts of death or suicide?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, consider contacting your primary healthcare provider or your student health center for a mental health assessment. Even if you don't think it's necessary quite yet, it's good to know who to call. If you feel comfortable speaking with a friend or relative about your concerns, have someone help you research treatment options and accompany you to your healthcare provider.
For non-campus options, support groups can also make a big difference. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) hosts a handy geographical locator for DBSA support groups all over the United States. Similarly, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America also offers a set of useful support tools.
Those who suffer from depression often feel as if they are alone and have no one to turn to. But it's important to understand that isn't the case — people care and they want to help. People suffering from depression also have resources at their disposal that they may not know about. For example, the following organizations are dedicated to providing resources for those living with depression:
This organization is dedicated to promoting the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, and related disorders. Its site offers insight into understanding depressive mental illnesses, provides links for those seeking help and identifies mobile apps designed to help people living with depressive illnesses.
A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIMH works to transform public and scientific understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and a cure. NIMH offers a wealth of information on pinpointing signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, resources for seeking help and opportunities to participate in clinical trials to further research.
This online resource for college students seeking mental health wellness provides a wealth of information, such as tips on how best to help friends in crisis and ideas for developing better wellness habits.
The ACHA promotes healthy campus communities and works to serve as a principal leadership organization for advancing the health of college students. The organization makes available many resources on its site, including help lines, brochures on different types of depression, and external links.
The Jed Foundation's produces and hosts a number of online resources designed to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college students. For example, the organization's
This initiative aims to help identify warning signs through social media and its Half of Us campaign promotes mental health awareness nationally via on-air or live events, and connects students with health care providers.