Depression is a common and serious medical condition that can present in various ways or levels of severity in different people. If you are a college student dealing with depression, or know someone who is, there are many resources available to you that can help.
Most Common Symptoms of Depression
There are a number of common symptoms associated with depression that can range from mild to severe. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a diagnosis of clinical depression or Major Depressive Disorder can be made if a person experiences 5 or more of the following symptoms for at least two consecutive weeks:1
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood, most of the day, every day
- Decrease or loss of interest or pleasure in activities you once enjoyed
- Weight loss or weight gain (not as a result of dieting) or changes in appetite
- Difficulties with sleeping too little or sleeping too much
- Feeling fatigued or a loss of energy
- Slowed or increased movements and/or thoughts—noticeable to others
- Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, or having a suicide plan or attempt
Why Are College Students Vulnerable to Depression?
The college years come with many expectations. They are often expected to be the “best years of your life.” A time for learning, developing a career path, building new relationships, and yielding greater self-reliance while entering into adulthood. The stress that comes along with these expectations can be great. When depression hits during the college years it can be very confusing and even devastating for the individual as well as their friends and family.
For a number of reasons this transition can be more difficult than expected and make college students more vulnerable to depression. Many students have a hard time adjusting to being away from home. This may be their first time away from family or familiar friends and that can be difficult.
Academic stress and the pressure to figure out what to study can be intense and weigh heavily on college students. Figuring out the right career path, meeting personal expectations, and familial pressures can also greatly contribute to high stress levels. These pressures often begin even before starting school.
Social pressures coupled with greater individual responsibility can also play a role and present some higher risk situations that weren’t present prior to beginning school. It may not be so simple for a new college student to understand the importance of a well structured day that includes self care, especially in modern society that has only just begun to shift the paradigm that daily self care is a positive attribute.
Many times there are changes in sleep patterns, differences in food intake, and difficulties in keeping daily responsibilities organized. This can lead to physical changes that in turn impact the student’s mental health.
Financial stress is another factor that makes college students susceptible to depression. The cost of college tuition is high and many students are faced with high student loans and future debt. Other financial stressors include financial aid responsibilities, scholarships, and pressure associated with family finances and expectations. Whether you are the first one in your family to attend college, change in family finances due to a parent or guardian losing their job, or come from a long line of collegial expectations, the pressure can be overtly demanding during this time.
Signs of Depression in College Students
Although there is no specific diagnosis for depression in college students, there are symptoms that are more specific to college life. Most college students will feel anxious or sad at times and this is expected. If these feelings don’t pass within a few days, it is a good idea to take a closer look for the warning signs of depression.
Some signs and symptoms that you may notice include:
- Missing classes or academic obligations
- Feeling sad and that you want to be left alone
- Drinking or using drugs
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Poor grades, or not completing assignments
- Sleeping a lot, or neglecting sleeping needs
- Irritability, frustration, or angry outbursts
- Poor hygiene and self care
Suicide and College Students
If you have experienced depression before, or if this is your first time, you may be thinking
“Why can’t I think myself out of this bad mood?” “What if I am really messed up and beyond help?” “Why do I feel like everyone else is put together and I am not?” These are all common thoughts for college students who are struggling with depression.
If you are not feeling like yourself and notice a change, it is time to reach out for support. Many students avoid seeking help because they do not want to be a burden on the people around them. They may even feel ashamed or embarrassed. This can be dangerous because when depression is not treated, it can worsen over time and lead to thoughts of self harm, and even suicide.
Thoughts of dying by suicide or suicidal ideation are directly correlated to disturbances in sleep patterns. Many college students, for a variety of reasons, pressures, or stress, lack the ability to enact a proper sleep schedule. This could be directly related to depression, or could come from stress related to educational, extra-curricular, or social demands.
Research shows poor overall sleep functioning was not only associated with increased suicidal behaviors but remained associated with suicidal behaviors when focusing on a group of students diagnosed with depression, irrespective of the severity of their depression. In fact, 80% of college students who were classified with suicide risk were also classified with sleep disturbances.2
It is important to keep in mind that if a college student is experiencing symptoms of depression, this is not uncommon. The reality is that 1 in 4 young adults will experience depression by the age of 24. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34.3 Depression is a treatable illness, however the stigma attached to seeking help is sometimes difficult to break through.
If you are thinking of suicide, remember that these thoughts can be a symptom of depression and with the right treatment, you can feel better again. Take that step and let a family member, friend, or healthcare professional know how you are feeling.
What to Do If Someone I Know Feels This Way?
If you think that someone you know is feeling depressed, there are some things that you can do to help. First, trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to ask the person if they are feeling down. Many times people think that bringing up the subject of depression or suicide will make the person feel worse. The truth is that many times they are feeling isolated, alone, or too embarrassed to be honest about how they are really feeling.
One of the most helpful ways to assist someone who is depressed is to listen to them and ask them open ended questions about how they are feeling and what they are experiencing. This can be the first step on their road to recovery.
When & How to Get Help With Depression
Depression is a serious and very common mental condition that requires treatment. It is better to address symptoms of depression as early as possible to decrease the amount of time the individual is suffering and avoid the possibility of harm.
Untreated depression can lead to worsening of symptoms, other mental or physical problems, and negative impact on school performance. Early detection of depression increases the likelihood that interventions will be helpful and that successful relapse prevention methods can be implemented.
Many times when a college student is depressed, they struggle academically and socially. Lower academic achievement can be a contributing factor to depressive symptoms and in turn worsen the impact of the condition for that student. This is why it is so important for universities and colleges to implement services and programs to support college students and increase self-acceptance, promote daily self-care, enhance communication skills, and improve social relations overall.4
What Resources at My University Can Help?
There are many resources to assist with your mental health needs on a college campus. It is important to familiarize yourself with the services that are available at your school so that if you or someone you know is in need of support you will be prepared. Most campuses will have the same support services in place although what they are called and the exact services provided may vary between campuses.
Here are some examples of what you can expect:
- Counseling Center: Therapy services, community referrals, online assessments, group programing, and mental health educational and outreach services.
- Health and Wellness Center: Ambulatory care, primary care services, health education and wellness programs.
- Student Support Groups: Usually run by a mental health professional. On many campuses, support groups are available both in person and online.
- Campus Police: Responsible for safety, security, and upholding the laws. Police are trained to respond to mental health crises when they arise.
How Depression Is Treated on College Campuses
Treatment for depression is very similar on a college campus as it is out in the community. One of the benefits of seeking help while in college is that the services are convenient to access and are usually low cost or free to the student. Campus mental health counselors are usually well prepared to engage in therapy and they are also able to refer students to the health center for a medication evaluation if indicated.
Some ways in which depression is often treated are:
- Therapy: Provided by a licensed mental health professional. Through the therapeutic process you will talk about your struggles and develop a plan to help you cope. The time spent in therapy is life changing for many people and can be helpful in gaining a more positive and recovery-oriented perspective.
- Medication: Sometimes, medication is needed to treat symptoms of depression. A primary care doctor or a psychiatrist can complete a medication evaluation and determine if medication is right for your specific situation. Many people find that once they are taking the right medication, their mood improves and they are able to better implement coping strategies.
- Exercise: Exercise can help with mild to moderate symptoms of depression. Physical movement can also help in preventing relapse of symptoms.5
- Complementary Approaches: Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, nutrition, support groups, and spirituality can all be components that contribute to a well-rounded recovery from depression.
How Do I Get This Treatment as a Student?
Campus counseling centers have a general mission to promote the wellbeing of the campus community as a whole. Most colleges and universities are able to provide both counseling and medication management right on campus. If therapeutic services are not available on campus, referrals can be made to local providers.
The first step is to contact the counseling center and schedule an appointment for an evaluation. The counselor will be able to discuss your mental health needs and work with you to determine the best course of treatment.
Do Universities Make Accommodations for Students with Depression?
According to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, college campuses are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students with physical and/or mental disabilities. These services are put in place to give all students an equal opportunity for success. Some examples include, but are not limited to, additional testing time, audio recordings of lectures and books, and additional time to complete assignments.
In order to qualify for services, an application must be submitted through the school’s disability office. This process can begin once the student receives their acceptance letter or at any point during their educational experience. Colleges have different documentation requirements, however most will include a letter from a doctor or mental health professional who is qualified to make a diagnosis, assessments supporting the diagnosis, relevant treatment data, and records of functional limitations requiring accommodations.6
It is important to note that accommodations are based on being disabled or impaired due to the symptoms of depression, and do not necessarily apply to everyone diagnosed with depression.
Do’s & Don’ts for Students with Depression
When it comes to depression, there are many factors that can help or hurt someone who has the condition or is at risk. There are lots of resources available to become more informed and help navigate the road to recovery.
Mobile apps can be helpful in tracking moods and provide tips and tools for coping. These apps can be used for mood tracking, guided meditations, positive thinking, mindfulness activities, and improving sleep habits. Although they are not an alternative to treatment with a mental health professional, they can be used as a tool while engaging in treatment.
Here are some additional tips for students with depression:
- Talk to someone about how you are feeling
- Seek professional help from a counselor or doctor
- Track your moods and symptoms
- Get the recommended amount of sleep
- Exercise on a regular basis
- Eat a well balanced diet
- Decrease stress where possible
- Try to “make yourself better” or “do it on your own”
- Dismiss thoughts of harm to yourself or others
- Use alcohol or drugs to cope
How Parents Can Help Their Depressed College Student
For parents and guardians, it can be difficult to identify when their child is experiencing symptoms of depression when they are living away from home. Parents or guardians may notice that their student is more distant and this could be a way for them to keep their symptoms a secret if they are feeling embarrassed.
If someone suspects their child is struggling, there are some things they can do to provide support: 7
- Talk to your child about how they are feeling. Ask open ended questions and create a safe space for sharing.
- Be an active listener.
- Provide resources and information to assist with initiating treatment
- Ask your child to sign a consent form allowing access to information about their mental health treatment. This will allow you to speak with mental health providers.
- Find support groups for yourself as well to help you cope and/or understand how to best help your loved one.
If you or someone that you know is feeling depressed and in need of immediate assistance, you can call, from anywhere in the United States, The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1−800−273−TALK (8255) to reach a 24−hour crisis center, or dial 911.