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If you are currently in college, there is already a good chance that you are suffering from post-teenage angst. You are worried about fitting in with your classmates. You are worried about social interactions, or lack thereof. You are worried about your grades. You are worried about job opportunities after you graduate. Let’s face it – You’re a mess of anxieties and fears. Who wouldn’t be depressed? If you have been feeling sad, hopeless, or irritable for at least two weeks, you might be depressed. You’re not alone. Depression in college students is the most common health problem. It can be treated, and most colleges offer free or low-cost mental health services to students. This article looks at the signs of depression, common causes, how to get help, tips, and resources for dealing with depression, and why depression is common amongst graduate students?
Telling a depressed person to be happy is like telling a cancer patient to cure themselves.
What is Depression?
Depression is a medical illness with many symptoms, including physical ones. Sadness is only a small part of depression. Some people with depression may not feel sad at all, but be more irritable, or just lose interest in things they usually like to do. Depression interferes with your daily life and normal functioning. Don’t ignore or try to hide the symptoms. It is not a character flaw, and it won’t go away by itself.
Depression is defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as, “Having long-lasting, moderate to severe feelings of sadness and/or loss of interest in once enjoyable activities.” It can cause various problems such as sleep disorders, eating disorders, and difficulty completing everyday tasks. For college students, depression can affect your ability to focus, study, and complete assignments and tests required for graduation.
What are the three different types of depression? The most common depressive disorders include:
Major depression (a discrete episode, clearly different from a person’s usual feeling and functioning),
Persistent depressive disorder (a chronic, low-grade depression that can get better or worse over time), and
Psychotic depression (the most severe depression with delusions or hallucinations).
Some people are vulnerable to depression in the winter (“seasonal affective disorder”), and some women report depression in a week or two before their menstrual period (“premenstrual dysphoric disorder”). Learn about other types of depression.
I am not a Doctor, Psychiatrist, or Medical Professional. The good people at Online Masters Colleges have asked me to write this article because I am an observer of life and have written a couple of self-help books. In my career, I have done a lot of business analysis and have used those same skills to figure out things in my personal life.
I will be publishing a new book shortly. It is called Depression Sucks! (50 Non-Medical Strategies for Coping with Depression). It will be available from www.amazon.com soon.
Because I am not a medical professional, I use the term “depression” very loosely.
If you think you are depressed, please see a medical professional, a psychiatrist, or an analyst as soon as possible.
Depression in College Students Statistics
Depression is a pretty common disorder. The APA reports that one in six people will experience depression at some point in their lives. According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people around the world live with depression. These numbers are all pre-pandemic. We can only imagine how many people are feeling depressed now. What is everyone worried about? Little things like paying the rent, putting food on the table, taking care of kids, home-schooling, will I have a job when this is all done, when will this be done, if you are single, will you ever be able to date again?
Anxiety and Depression in College Students
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five college students experiences a mental health condition during their university years. Young adults, many who will be away from home and their primary support systems for the first time, need to know how to identify signs and symptoms in themselves and their peers and how to access resources. Many students will find that they are coping with more than one mental health challenge at a time. This is normal. For example, many people who are struggling with addiction may also be depressed. Or, in some cases, having an untreated mental health condition can put you at higher risk for other mental health challenges. For example, people experiencing PTSD are at greater risk for other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
If you have been experiencing any of the following signs and symptoms nearly every day for at least two weeks, you may have major – sometimes called ‘clinical depression’ in college students:
Alcohol and substance abuse.
Students are adjusting to college life, a new town, new friends, living in a new environment, and being away from home and family for the first time.
Anxiety is an “anticipation of a future threat.”
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Inattention such as difficulty with paying close attention, difficulty holding attention: difficulty listening, difficulty following through on tasks; difficulty organizing; difficulty maintaining attention for extended periods; a tendency to lose things; and being easily distracted. Hyperactivity such as fidgeting, difficulty sitting still, feeling restless, talking excessively, or blurting things out; trouble with waiting your turn or constantly interrupting.
Manic Episode symptoms can include Elevated mood, increased energy; inflated self-esteem; decreased need for sleep, more talkative than usual; racing thoughts, distracted; increase in specific goal-directed activity, and involvement in high-risk activities. Depressive Episode symptoms can include: Depressed mood; decreased interest in activities; weight loss; disrupted sleep; noticeable restless or slowed behavior; loss of energy; feeling worthless or guilty; difficulty concentrating; and thoughts of death including feeling suicidal.
Depressed mood; decreased interest in activities; change in weight; difficulty sleeping; noticeable restless or slowed behavior; fatigue; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; difficulty concentrating; thoughts of death that may include feeling suicidal.
Lack of appetite or an increased need to eat, leading to either weight loss or gain:
Anorexia: Restricting calories needed to maintain the minimal weight for age and height; fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, while underweight.
Bulimia: Recurring episodes of binge eating; eating more in a window of time than what most people would eat in the same period of time; recurring and inappropriate behavior to prevent weight gain (vomiting, use of laxatives or other medications not as directed, fasting, or excessive exercise).
Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
Accelerated heart rate; sweating; shaking; shortness of breath; feelings of choking; chest pain or discomfort; nausea or abdominal pain; feeling dizzy or lightheaded; feeling hot or cold; feelings of numbness or tingling; feelings of unreality; fear of losing control; and fear of dying
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
After experiencing sexual assault or witnessing a traumatic event: Distressing memories that are recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive; distressing dreams; flashbacks; distressing feelings or physiological reactions when exposed to things that remind the person of the traumatic event; irritability; reckless or self-destructive behavior; hypervigilance; easily startled; difficulty concentrating; difficulty with sleep. Veterans are a population that frequently experience symptoms of PTSD as well, and many veterans begin or return to college following their service.
Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much. Insomnia or increased need for sleep. Dissatisfaction with sleep quantity or quality; difficulty falling asleep; difficulty staying asleep, waking up frequently; difficulty falling back asleep if woken up at night; waking up earlier than you would like; disturbed breathing at night, including snoring; feeling sleepy during the day.
Thoughts of suicide or increased thoughts about death. Feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
Other Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
Diminished interest in activities that were once enjoyable
Feelings of profound sadness
Learn from anywhere
Persistent headaches, stomachaches, or muscle pain
Reduced interest in normally pleasurable activities
Restlessness, irritability, or lack of energy and fatigue
Severe changes in physical activity and movements, such as prolonged pacing or shaking one’s leg
Trouble concentrating and attending to usual tasks
Depression and Suicide in College Students – Warning Signs
Depression is a major risk factor for suicide. The following are some of the signs you might notice in yourself, or a friend, that may be a reason for concern:
Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or buying a gun
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
Talking about being a burden to others and those others would be better off if one were gone
Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
Giving away prized possessions
Sleeping too little or too much
Withdrawing or feeling isolated
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Displaying extreme mood swings
Why is Depression Common Amongst Graduate Students?
There are three main reasons:
Lack of Support and Mentoring
Undergraduate universities are usually nurturing environments for the first-time college student. But, on the other hand, some graduate schools can be rather competitive, or even cutthroat, because the stakes are so much higher. Online graduate universities may try to provide an encouraging atmosphere, but there is only so much they can do at a distance. Graduate students wind up having to fend for themselves more than they bargained for.
The Stigma of Mental Illness
Most university personnel are prepared to deal with younger, undergraduate students who may develop problems. On the other hand, they may be less sympathetic toward older graduate students. The students may also have the perception that they should be able to handle their complex situations and not have to rely on university resources.
Balancing Many Responsibilities
Most graduate students are older. Many will not only be responsible for themselves; they may have fulltime jobs, spouses, and children. Add the pressure of graduate-level courses, and you have a recipe perfect for developing depression.
10 Tips from My Book Depression Sucks!
Here is a sample of some of the non-medical strategies in my book:
Celebrate Small Victories
If you have an accomplishment, no matter how minor, feel free to feel good about it. It doesn’t matter if the source is internal or external. If it makes you feel good or brings a smile to your face, take it and run with it. Then, do something else that makes you feel good. Do this enough, and it becomes a habit.
Find a Real Happy Place
Whether it is alone or with others, if there is someplace that brings a smile to your lips (or, at least, erases a frown), then go there as often as you can. Maybe a backyard with a view, a quiet rooftop, a park bench, a favorite niche in the library, or even your bed. Wherever you feel happy and content, go there whenever you can.
Have a Good Cry
Crying can release a cascade of emotions. You may not realize that anger, hurt, hate, are welling up inside you, but they can. You do not always have to suppress them. When you are alone, bring them to the surface. Allow yourself to be sad. Allow tears to fall from your eyes. Take that sadness and wash it away
Laughter is the best medicine. It is really hard to feel bad when you are laughing. Just by laughing and getting into a good mood, I was able to focus. It snapped me out of the down mood I was in and energized me to start doing stuff.
Listen to Music
It is said that “music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” Most people have some sounds that make them feel good. Create a playlist of your favorites, put on your headphones (not earbuds), crank up the volume (but not too loud), and listen with eyes closed.
Lists, Calendars, and Routines
Depression is bad enough. But, throw in the anxiety you feel when you are sure you forgot to do something but can’t remember what it is – that just exacerbates the situation. Making a list, writing appointments (or deadlines) on a calendar, and having a routine
Physical Activity / Exercise
Exercise has also been shown to have numerous mental health benefits, including reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. College students can also benefit from the impact that exercise has on the brain, including improved memory and thinking skills.
You can’t be unhappy when you are singing – it is a physical impossibility. Print out the lyrics to your favorite songs and sing out loud.
For the depressed, sleep is a double-edged sword. You want to make sure that you have enough so that you have the energy to do things, but you don’t want to sleep so much that you lose the day. I love to take naps. Before a nap, I am dragging and don’t feel like doing anything. When I wake up, I am energized and feel like I can accomplish everything.
Stop Watching the News
We live in a depressing world, and many college students feel like they need to be activists to help fix it all. That’s a lot of responsibility. Take a break from the news of the day. I know, you are already feeling anxious that you don’t know the latest faux pas made by a politician that you hate, or are aware of the latest atrocity on another continent. Turn off your phone, turn off your radio, turn off your TV, and do something fun.
For those experiencing a mental health challenge, the perceived stigma is often the biggest barrier to getting help. People often feel embarrassed or ashamed of their symptoms and are afraid to ask for help. You wouldn’t feel ashamed for seeking medical care for a physical health condition (think ear infection, broken leg, stomach pain), so there is no reason to feel embarrassed about seeking help for a mental health condition. Health is health. Everyone is entitled to good health care.
Mental health conditions are treatable. Help is available. Finding a good therapist, doctor, or support group can make all the difference. You do not need to do this alone. There are trained professionals available to help. With the appropriate support, you can and will feel better!
Like any health issue, left undiagnosed and untreated, mental health conditions can worsen. Symptoms can become increasingly intense, making it hard to cope with the daily routine of life. Students may find themselves becoming increasingly isolated, failing or dropping out of college, or in the worst case, attempting or committing suicide.
The stress that students experience in college can trigger a relapse in symptoms for a mental health condition that a student may have felt was under control. If you experience a relapse in symptoms, it doesn’t mean that you have failed; it simply means that it is a good time to reevaluate your current treatment. Maybe it is time to assess your current self-care (sleep, nutrition, workload), reconnect with a therapist, or reevaluate your medication with a doctor.
Who You Gonna Call?
Sometimes confiding in others is a great way to relieve stress. Don’t forget that you have these resources:
Maybe they are feeling the same way you are.
They’ve been there before. If they are there for you now, then let them know what is going on.
That’s what they are paid for and what they are trained for.
Some are more sympathetic than others, but they are trained professionals and can refer you to the best options.
The perfect choice if they are available.
They are also trained to help in a more spiritual vein.
Parents and Relatives
Don’t forget Mom and Pop, Aunt Sue, or Cousin Bob. They know you and want to help.
Here are a few additional resources when the going gets tough:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free and confidential crisis support for suicide prevention 24/7.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP: The National Helpline offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is available 24/7. This confidential and free helpline offers information (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families seeking information on treatment options for mental health and substance use disorders.
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