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Most people sometimes feel sad or anxious, with these feelings passing within a day or so. So how do you know if someone needs help? When a person is clinically depressed, it’s different. Symptoms last longer and cause disruption in the person’s normal day-to-day activities.
In a recent Student Health 101 survey, almost 55 percent of respondents said they have felt what they would describe as depressed. And according to the American College Health Association’s 2012 National College Health Assessment (NCHA), 30 percent of college students reported feeling so depressed that it interrupted their normal daily functioning at some point during the last 12 months. The likelihood is that you know someone, maybe even yourself, who could use some support.
Depression is a medical illness that typically expresses itself through feelings of sadness or anxiety, although symptoms vary from one person to another. Things to look for include:
- Feeling hopeless or empty
- Feeling worthless
- Social isolation
- Spending less time with family and friends
- Irritability or restlessness
Probably because of the way men and women are socialized in Western culture, women are more likely to cry or express feeling helpless, while men might feel angry. This may be because men feel awkward acknowledging when they feel sad, or are concerned about seeming weak.
Full list of potential depression symptoms
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering information, or making decisions
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep; lethargy and excessive sleep
- Significant weight loss or gain
- Thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or suicide attempts
- Physical pains like headaches, stomach distress, and achiness
- Anger and irritability
- Anxiety or preoccupation with worst-case scenarios
- Feeling hopeless and/or worthless
- Increased alcohol or other drug use
- Loss of motivation
- Difficulty completing simple tasks
What Causes Depression?
Depression doesn’t have a single cause. Some people are more at risk for developing it because of family history, biological and environmental factors, or life experiences.
Research has shown that for some people with clinical depression, early disappointments and deeply rooted thought processes affect their ability to overcome challenges. Others have an imbalance of the brain chemicals that aid in emotional processing. That’s why prescription medications can often help.
Major life changes can also increase the risk of developing depression. For example:
- Loss of a family member, friend, or pet
- Breakup of a romantic relationship
- Prolonged periods of stress
Living away from home, conflict in a relationship, and facing financial struggles can also trigger symptoms.
Difficulty coping with everyday life and feeling irritable, hopeless, and deeply sad can have a significant impact on all aspects of life in college. In the recent Student Health 101 survey, students indicated that feelings of depression affect them in the following ways:
- 73% have difficulty sleeping or sleep more than usual
- 68% just want to be alone
- 66% eat more or lose their appetite
- 62% feel irritable or snap at people
- 58% have difficulty concentrating
- 43% get headaches
- 15% use alcohol or other drugs
Alcohol is nervous system depressant, so if you’re feeling low and drinking, it may make you feel even worse.
Depression is also a significant risk factor for suicide and self-harm. According to the 2012 NCHA data, seven percent of college students seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, and six percent intentionally cut, bruised, burned, or otherwise hurt themselves.
Fortunately, getting treatment for depression can help reduce these risks.
Depression Needs Attention
It can be hard to admit to feeling depressed, especially for students who pride themselves on being productive and independent. If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of distress, there is no shame in identifying the feelings and reaching out for help.
Claire H., a junior at Montgomery College in Maryland, notes, “People [who are depressed] often feel as though they’re not valuable enough to be worth someone giving them time. This can make taking the first step toward [getting] help difficult.” So, extending yourself to show that you notice and care about how someone is feeling can make a world of difference.
In the Student Health 101 survey, 62 percent of students said that if they feel depressed, they want help from friends, and 40 percent reach out to their parents.
The first step to getting through depression is to acknowledge the symptoms. Molly B.*, a student at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Louisiana, says that what helps her is taking responsibility for her feelings and processing what’s bothering her.
Angie Reather, a psychology fellow in the counseling center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, encourages students to pursue their interests, particularly if isolation is one of the ways they respond to their depression. She says, “Making a plan and taking some control can be very empowering.”
Talking With a Professional
Nearly 20 percent of respondents to the Student Health 101 survey said that if they feel depressed, they speak with a professional counselor. Counselors, advisors, and clergy members are all available to help students who need support. Unfortunately, some students think that needing professional help is a weakness or feel their problems are too personal to share.
But getting help sooner rather than later can relieve symptoms of depression more quickly and allow students to get back to feeling motivated in school and enjoying friends and family. Encouraging a peer to visit the health or counseling center is an effective way to offer support. If someone you know is depressed, you can even go with him or her to an appointment. Offering understanding and encouragement can go a long way, and sometimes people just need someone to listen.
The good news is that depression is very treatable. Through talk therapy, medication management, support from loved ones and mentors, and self-care, most people with depression lead healthy lives. If you or someone you know needs support, help is available, and with time, depression can turn into hopefulness.
More information about treatment options
Depression is TreatableThere are a number of very effective treatments for depression, including talk therapy (also called psychotherapy) and medications, such as antidepressants.
Rupal Bhatt, a counselor at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, uses a variety of creative ways to assist students in managing their depression. She says, “I have students track their mood with mobile or hard-copy mood trackers. This assists them in getting a sense of their emotional patterns.” An activity like this can also provide a feeling of having more control of the situation.
Bhatt also explains that therapy isn’t always what students may picture: sitting on a couch and spilling secrets. For example, during some counseling sessions, she literally has clients get up and moving by taking a 20-minute walk with them. Why? Bhatt finds that many students are able to articulate their thoughts and feelings more effectively during or afterward. She says, “The movement is helpful to their cognitive processing.”
Here are some other things to do if you are feeling depressed:
- Spend time with family and friends.Ruminating on problems and negative feelings can actually make you feel worse.
- Exercise. Physical movement releases endorphins (feel-good brain chemicals). It’s an effective antidote to depression, especially when combined with talk therapy.
- Break up daily tasks. Accomplishing each piece can increase feelings of empowerment.
- Set aside big decisions. Depression can cloud judgment, and also make decision-making feel overwhelming.
- Give meditation, deep breathing, or quiet time in nature a try. People who focus on the mind-body connection tend to feel more content.
- Be patient. Depression takes time and treatment to lift, but with support, you can feel better.
Reduce the Stigma
Active Minds is a national organization of students working to enhance understanding of emotional health on college campuses and help students get help for their concerns.
* Name changed for privacy.
- Recognize the signs of depression.
- Reach out to family and friends, either for yourself or someone you care about.
- Understand that depression is treatable.
- Find support from mentors and professional counselors.
- Get involved to reduce the stigma of seeking help for emotional health concerns.
Get help or find out more
National Institute of Mental Health, Depression and College Students
University of California Berkeley, Depression and College Students (Adapted from the National Institute of Mental Health)
National Public Radio. (2011). Depression On The Rise In College Students Go Ask Alice!, Blues and Depression
Burns, D. (2000). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. HarperCollins: New York.
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., and Kabat-Zin, J. (2007). The Mindful Way Through Depression. The Guilford Press: New York.