Written By - Derick de Souza

Reviewed By OMC Staff

An average of 20 million young adults are enrolled in the U.S. postsecondary educational systems, and in the past decade, mental health concerns have almost doubled in this population[1]. With the uncertain pandemic, there was a surge in students’ mental health worsening. However, this problem hasn’t occurred just because of the pandemic. Looking at the college student mental health trends[2], we can understand that just in 2020-2021, over 60% of college experienced at least one or more mental health challenges. This article explores the symptoms, causes, and resources for depression.

Depression in college students

Table Of Contents

What is Depression?

Depression is often used as a synonym for sadness, loss of motivation, and so on in regular conversation. It is essential to understand that depression is different from the common mood fluctuations and emotional reactions we have to the challenges in our everyday lives. The American Psychological Association (APA)[3] specifies, “Depression is an extreme sadness or despair that lasts more than days. It interferes with daily activities and causes physical symptoms like pain, weight loss or gain, disruption of sleep patterns, or even lack of energy”.  Those undergoing depression can experience worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt and even have difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and losing appetite. It is one of the most common mental disorders globally. However, it is treatable, and a combination of medication, therapy, support from loved ones, and more can ensure a person’s recovery.

Symptoms and Causes

For undergraduates, graduates, and college students at other levels of study, it is essential to understand the causes and symptoms of depression. Understanding the ins and outs of depression can help one determine whether they or someone they know may be experiencing such symptoms or be at risk. Here are some pointers about the symptoms and causes of depression that can help someone get a fundamental understanding of who can be at risk and what signs they should look out for (it should, however, be noted that depression is a clinical disorder, and therefore, seeking the help of a mental health professional for diagnosis can give an accurate and medically adept picture of one’s condition). 

A. Symptoms of Depression

The persistent feeling of loss of interest or sadness that symbolizes significant depression can lead to many behavioral and physical symptoms. One must understand the first signs of depression in oneself or others to take preventive measures immediately. Some of the common symptoms or signs to have a look out for that majorly affect one’s ability to function efficiently include

  • Having persistent feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Feeling fatigued throughout the day consistently despite no significant change in routine
  • Having irregular sleep patterns or sleep disturbance, including either lack of sound sleep or excessive sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks at hand, observing apparent signs of cognitive dysfunction, and loss of productivity
  • Significant feelings of restlessness or irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies
  • Changes in appetite, with most individuals having a lack of appetite
  • Some individuals display bodily changes like unexplained digestive issues, persistent pains or aches
  • Feelings of anxiousness in everyday tasks or without an apparent cause
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Suicidal Ideation[4] or intent

B. Causes of Depression

There are different viewpoints, studies, and research regarding the causes of depression, and a common conclusion that most of them come to is that there is no single cause of depression. The reasons will vary considerably since people’s personalities, lifestyles, and coping mechanisms differ significantly. In some cases, there are no apparent causes of depression. The most common cause is significant stress, grief due to losing a loved one, relationship breakdown, not getting into one’s dream college, etc. Some individuals are more vulnerable to depression due to their personality traits, like being highly self-critical; this can be linked to inherited genes, early childhood experiences, and sometimes both.  Those with a history of mental illness in their family are more susceptible to developing the disorder. 

One of the causes that can even be seen as a symptom is feeling lonely due to being cut off from one’s friends and family. College is when students are introduced to handling situations independently, and some people try to cope with stressful situations by consuming alcohol or drugs. Substance abuse causes not only emotional implications. However, some substances like alcohol even affect the brain’s chemistry as some act as a central nervous system depressant, slowing down parts of the brain, resulting in impaired cognition and increasing one’s chances of getting depressed. 

Those undergoing some severe life-threatening diseases or chronic conditions may also be more susceptible to developing depressive symptoms. In college, students transitioning from one phase of their life to another can be one of the most significant reasons for depression. Students are expected to deal with nuanced situations very different from the life they have experienced in the comfort of their homes. College life and the pressure to fit in may be stressful for some; stressors like academic and social pressure, fear of missing out, obligations to conform, and more can result in an emotional imbalance in some individuals. 

Here is a summary of the possible causes of depression, including

  • Life-changing events like bereavement
  • Childhood experiences
  • Genetic inheritances
  • Medication, alcohol, or another recreational drug
  • Physical health problems
  • Sleep and diet
  • Other associated mental health problems

Suicide Among Graduate Students

In a study conducted on 1180 graduate students by the Graduate Student Council, one-third of these respondents reported feeling dissatisfied or neutral in their mental health condition[5]. Another study also concludes that graduates are three times more likely than the average individuals in America to experience depression or any other mental health condition[6]. The mental health of undergraduates is often considered a common cause of concern, and there is a lot of discourse around it. However, the conversation about master’s students is often not spoken about, and this population worldwide needs more resources and support to manage their mental health issues. Many graduates feel overwhelmed by work situations and don’t know where to seek help.

Some of the factors leading to Post-Graduation Depression include

  • Transitioning from prior living arrangements, the shift of mindset from student life to working adult, routine, and more
  • Challenges in adjusting to mainstream life
  • Difficulty in staying in touch with peers and more

Post-graduate symptoms of depression include sadness, decreased motivation, loss of interest in pleasurable things, disorganization, hopelessness, loneliness, and so on.

Other Common Mental Disorders

Millions of Americans live with mental health challenges. Factors in students’ lives include academic achievement, physical health, satisfaction with college experience, the negative impact of relationships with family and friends, and reduced quality of life. Most mental disorders can have severe long-term costs regarding future employment, health, well-being, earning potential, and more. Depression is one of the most commonly diagnosed mental health challenges among students; some of the other common disorders apart from depression are explored below:

Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety disorders are very prevalent mental disorders in the U.S., and nearly 30% of adults are affected by them at some point or other[7]. Anxiety is generally a normal stress reaction, but it is beneficial sometimes. Anxiety disorder, on the other hand, involves excessive anxiety or fear. For someone diagnosed with this disorder, the anxiety may hinder one’s ability to adaptively and show an inappropriate or out-of-proportion reaction to a situation. Graduates having this disorder may experience symptoms like sweating, trembling or shaking, palpitations, chest pain, chills, and more. In college, the student’s environment, life transitions, peer pressure, social settings, unrealistic expectations, and so on can put students at risk of developing anxiety symptoms. According to research.com, it is projected that 45% of American college students reported having “more than average stress.[8]” 

Eating Disorder

An eating disorder can include bulimia nervosa, binge eating, and anorexia nervosa, typically emerging from adolescence and young adulthood. Research examining a large national sample of more than 260,000 college students over eight years project that the risk of eating disorders has increased substantially by 13 percentage points[9]. An average of 20% of women and 10% of men in schools have this disorder, and rates are only rising. The challenges of college life add pressure to the underlying mental health concerns. Factors like increased workload, lesser predictability in routine, poor self-esteem, anxieties, and learning issues can lead to graduates developing eating disorders. This disorder develops when one wants to feel more in control over stressful environments; this stress is channeled through restriction or lack of limitation over food and exercise and unhealthy attention toward one’s body weight[10].  

Substance  Abuse Disorder

Substance use disorder refers to the persistent usage of drugs (alcohol including) despite their harmful and adverse effects. The conditions or impact of this disorder persistently worsen over time concerning its negative effects on a person’s life, including physical, social, psychological, and more such implications. Those enrolled in universities make up one of the most significant consumers of different groups of drugs. The National Survey Data indicates that more than 60% of full-time college students have consumed alcohol, and around 39% are binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks)[11]. In college students, there are various risk factors linked to substance abuse. For example, those joining fraternities and sororities have a higher prevalence of substance use behaviors. Some college campus-specific risk factors for substance use include joining sorority or fraternity membership, perception of low harm of substance, peer influence, binge drinking leading to more substance consumption, poor academic performance, transitions, and more. 

Bipolar Disorder

 Bipolar Disorder is often called manic depression. It is a condition that causes extreme mood swings in individuals, including periods of emotional highs (hypomania or mania) and lows(depression). The percentage of college students with diagnosed bipolar disorder in the United States in 2021 is around three percent[12]. There may be different causes of bipolar disorder, some unknown causes. These causes include brain structure, seasonal depression, family history, drug or alcohol abuse, stress, etc. The Americans with Disabilities Act[13] specifies that schools providing higher education must provide the appropriate assistance and all necessary accommodations to college students diagnosed with this disorder. Intense symptoms during depressive episodes or hypomania can impair one’s work productivity.  One can use different medications to stabilize the symptoms or unwanted side effects like impaired attention, concentration, agitation, drowsiness, and much more. Students can contact Disability Support Services to assist in their educational process. Through these services, one can avail accommodations like flexibility in class attendance, an extension of work submission, receipt of class notes, and so on. 

Why is Depression Common Amongst Graduate Students

Many college students generally experience mental health challenges, the highest prevalence being depression. The symptoms of depression can be short-term and directly linked to the challenges of becoming a new applicant, like feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, and more. A Healthy Minds Study conducted in 2020 included 33,000 college-goers in the United States; half are projected to have depression or anxiety, and sometimes more[14]. Another research conducted by the same organization reports that the mental health of college students across different regions in the United States has been declining from 2013 to 2031. The number of applicants meeting this criterion will have doubled by 2021[15]. The average onset of depression is late to mid-20s, and 1 out of 15 adults are reported to experience some symptoms of depression. However, researchers have linked the increase in depression to heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, mental health crisis exists even beyond the university setting. Those taking up coursework online may have to manage the course load and family or full-time work responsibilities. When one faces many challenges, learners generally become frustrated, burned out, or even overwhelmed, increasing their risk of developing depression. Some of the most common risk factors related to students attending institutions include

  • Academic pressures
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence
  • Underlying other mental health conditions
  • Substance use or abuse
  • Financial difficulties
  • Internet addiction
  • Belonging to minority groups (facing situations of discrimination or prejudice)
  • No social support

How to Deal With Depression in College

College can be an exciting time for students, but it can get overwhelming, and some individuals may experience symptoms of loneliness even if people surround them. Depression is a severe mental health condition characterized by guilt, sadness, changes in sleep habits or appetite, thoughts of suicide, shame, and more. If you or someone you know is suffering from depression in college, you can learn about different coping strategies by taking some steps to minimize the challenges of these symptoms. One can learn many learning techniques and tools to help one cope with the situations that trigger depressive and stressful episodes. Understanding such mechanisms can help get the appropriate help and address the shame or stigma associated with the disorder.

Ways to Seek Help

Anyone experiencing mental health challenges finds it difficult to seek help, as the perceived stigma is a barrier to receiving support. Many individuals feel ashamed to speak about their symptoms. Unlike physical conditions, societal stigma makes it difficult for college students to discuss their challenges. Similar to physical ailments, one should be able to voice their concerns about mental health conditions. 

These conditions are treatable, and many ways of coping can help one get their life together. Some ways to seek help and improve their well-being include

  1. Talk to Professionals
    Finding a good doctor or therapist who can help one navigate one’s symptoms and suggest healthy ways to deal with the disorder. Many trained professionals on the college campus are equipped with the correct resources to help students deal with their symptoms of depression. Talking to professionals also includes taking medication that the psychiatrist prescribes. 
  2. Join Support Groups
    Joining support groups can make a big difference in feeling supported and dealing with symptoms of loneliness. Support groups help one get the perspectives of others and make one realize that they are not alone in how they are feeling. When you support one another, it may also enhance one’s sense of purposefulness. 
  3. Improve food and Nutrition
    As a college student, food consumption patterns may be irregular. Sometimes, one may not take the required nutrition for mental health enrichment, worsening symptoms. One needs to emphasize their diet to include goods that have green leafy vegetables, beans and lentils, protein, antioxidants, and more.
  4. Changes in daily routine or lifestyle
    Some factors in the lifestyle of a college student that can contribute to the worsening of depression symptoms include unhealthy eating, irregular exercise patterns, and sleep, disruptive relationships, no specific patterns of stress management, and more. Not having a particular routine can make depression even worse. Depression symptoms itself can make it hard to maintain a routine. Therefore, ensuring one sticks to healthy habits, including restful sleep, regular exercise, a good diet, and more, can help manage one’s symptoms. 
  5. Be productive 
    What’s consuming your energy mindlessly and prioritizing work? If students do small tasks productively, they can avoid anxiety-provoking situations. Explore resources to make your study sessions more productive and better study techniques. One can also include an overall systematic pattern of studying and a practical study schedule. Consistency is the cue to ensure one doesn’t get into habits of inactivity.

Who You Can Call

The stress of experiencing symptoms can make one feel not in control. One must assess self-care plans, ensure one confides in others, and relieve stress. Some of the resources most college students can access in times of need.


Talking to friends is an excellent way to remain grounded and ensure that the stress and anxieties one is feeling at a time are under control. Your friends may be undergoing the same situation as you, and maintaining open conversations with them can help to develop ways of support and strategies. Significantly, at times when one is having suicidal ideation or thoughts of self-harm seriously, talking to a friend can help think through these thoughts and may help in taking any extreme measures. 

Trusted teachers

Those with a healthy relationship with their teachers, wherein there is a scope to express their symptoms of depression without judgment, should talk to them about their mental health challenges. Teachers can support students by looking at any abrupt changes in the school performance, disruptive behaviors, mood, and more that one displays. Trusted teachers can also refer to different directions or college policies regarding crisis management and intervention and provide resources to contact other professionals like psychologists, social workers, school counselors, and more. 

University counselors

Since depression is one of the most common mental health challenges that affect college students, most institutions allocate funding for counseling and psychological services. There are university counselors from whom one can avail of free and confidential in-house services in counseling. They can help one implement and maintain consistent daily routines. University counselors can also help students with goal setting, time management, and other benefits.  


One can treat depression with talk therapy; however, one often needs a combination of talk therapy and medicines like antidepressants. In such cases, college students must talk to their doctor about depression. Doctors can help one navigate their treatment, provide an understanding of their healing, and suggest different treatments if therapy and medicines are not helping one. 


Therapy can be essential in managing the various challenges of depression and living a more well-balanced life. Talking to a trained therapist can help students identify future options and set more realistic goals. A competent therapist[16] can also help individuals have a more positive outlook on their lives.  Talking to them can improve patterns of interacting with others, identifying successful strategies previously used, and so on. 


For some individuals, the clergy can be the first point of contact for those suffering from depression. A study reported that 90% of the clergy selected as respondents said they would encourage those with depressive symptoms to seek mental health professional help[17]. The same survey also noted that while many clergies did encourage religiously oriented treatment for depression, like scripture study or prayer, those religious remedies were considered supplementary and not replacements for medical treatment. Getting a spiritual perspective on life or just visiting peaceful environments like the Church and including it as part of one’s routine can serve as a coping strategy. 

Parents and Relatives

While struggling with depression, the support of parents and relatives can often serve as a protective factor to deal with the adversities of college. A healthy relationship with family members can act as a stress buster. The role of the family in mental health treatment can help one face their mental illness without the fear of being judged and put a more well-balanced coping system in place.

11 Self-Care Practices You Can Do

Often, depression can cause someone the inability to look after themselves or practice some form of self-care. Self-care can fall under the mental, physical, environmental, spiritual, recreational, social, and emotional domains. It can feel hard to execute self-care when you are living with depression. However, here are some tips that may help you get going and look forward to taking care of yourself steadily. These tips mentioned here are from Bob Litt’s book Depression Sucks!: 50 Non-Medical Strategies for Coping with Depression[18]. Some of these tips include

Celebrate small victories

Sometimes, it can be challenging to feel good about the minor accomplishments that we have had. However, it does not matter whether the achievement is internal or external and even tangible and intangible; if it brings you happiness, count it as a win! You can continue doing tasks or activities that make you feel good, even if others do not understand them. 

Find a real happy place

Have a good cry

Laugh more

Listen to music

Lists, calendars, and routines

Physical activity and exercise



Stop watching the News

How to Help Someone with Depression

Due to the social and other undue pressures in college, getting those suffering from depression to seek help can be difficult. As a caregiver, peer, teacher, or more, you may feel helpless if you do not understand how to support someone with depression or cannot provide suitable resources to cope with depression. Recovery includes several stages of up and downs, and, therefore, it is important to remember that no matter how desperately we may want to help them, it is required that we are respectful of them as a person and do not force our ideas of recovery on them.

Warning Signs

Depression is one of the significant risk factors for suicide and other associated disorders like substance abuse and more. Therefore, there are some warning signs to look out for in oneself, classmates, friends, and family members that may be a reason for concern, including:

  • Having conversations about wanting to die, kill oneself, or put themselves in potentially high danger (Suicide & Crisis Lifeline[19]).
  • Talking about feelings of helplessness or hopelessness and saying they have no reason to live.
  • Speaking about feelings of being in unbearable pain, trapped in their life circumstances, or showing signs of learned helplessness[20].
  • Increasing use of alcohol, drugs, or other harmful substances.
  • Feeling agitated or anxious and behaving recklessly with others or in situations.
  • Not caring about their possessions or giving them away.
  • Disturbed sleeping patterns, including sleeping too much or too little.
  • Displaying feelings of isolation, withdrawal, and avoidance of social situations.
  • Shows inappropriate rage or signs of anger and talks about revenge-seeking.
  • Display signs of extreme mood swings.
  • Inquiring or researching about ways to kill oneself through an online search, buying guns, and so on.

7 Steps to Support Someone Coping With Depression

Depression can look different in different people; however, here are some steps that one can take to help their loved ones undergoing the signs and symptoms of the disorder.

1. Encourage professional help

  • Often, those who have depression may not be in a position to acknowledge that they are even depressed, and not recognize the signs or symptoms, and even think what they are feeling is normal.
  • You can talk to the person and explain to them that you have noticed some signs and symptoms that make you concerned and that depression itself is a medical condition; therefore, seeking the assistance of a mental health provider, for example, a licensed psychologist, can provide them with more clarity on how to recover.

2. Be mindful, respectful, and careful about your boundaries

  • Depression can be a personal journey that one is undergoing, often where the person is unsure of what or how they might be feeling. It is vital that while you, as a well-wisher, want to help them get better, you do so within certain boundaries.
  • You can express your willingness to help them by finding ethical therapists, going with them to attend sessions, helping them with their daily routine, and more. However, you need to be respectful and mindful of their wishes. Even if you feel helpless that they are not following through with your advice or recommendation, you need to give them the space to process their feelings; it may be harder for them to follow through with the direction you are giving them.

3. Keep looking for worsening symptoms

  • Depression symptoms exist in varying intensities; some signs can be highly alarming.
  • The behaviors or languages the person uses when the depression worsens and the circumstances triggering such episodes pushing them towards severe depression can be understood and communicated respectfully to the person to help them take preventive measures.
  • You can help them figure out what activities help them when their symptoms worsen and assist them in putting a self-care regimen together, for example, getting the appropriate amount of sleep, being physically active, eating healthy, etc.

4. Have realistic or minimalistic expectations

  • It can be highly challenging for you to see someone suffer or show signs of depression, especially if they may be making no or slow progress. 
  • It is crucial to support them during these times while keeping very minimal or realistic expectations from your side.

5. Support small wins

  • Recovery from depression is a process rather than a specified end goal and can look different on different days. On some days, recovery can look like getting up from bed; on others, it can look like going out with you for social activities.
  • It is important to recognize such small wins and help the person understand that they are part of their recovery process; such small wins daily can help them steadily reach bigger goals.
  • A lot of times, since the person may not feel like doing anything and even not see the point in getting tasks done, just helping them get more considerable activities like cleaning their room thoroughly, breaking into smaller parts like cleaning the drawers first, can help them get moving.

6. Encourage outdoor activities

  • It may be difficult for a person with depression to leave their room or other comfort zones and go outside. However, even minimal activity outdoors and breathing in the fresh air can help someone improve their state of mind.
  • You can just take them with you for a brisk walk, sit outside for some time, and do other activities that get them out.

7. Look after yourself

  • It can be challenging to be around those with depression; even if they are the most well-intentioned people, their symptoms may overpower them sometimes, leading to pessimism or negative thinking patterns that may demotivate you.
  • Many times, even with professional help, it can take months or weeks to show any kind of improvement, which can be frustrating for you to deal with and hamper your mental health. 
  • At times like these, one needs to take care of their mental health, seek support from their family and peers, engage in activity, etc.
  • If you are the sole or significant caregiver for a person with depression, ensure you get enough rest and activity. If you are a college student, continue your regular college activity to the best of your ability and seek help from others instead of trying to tackle it yourself. 

FAQs About Depression and Graduate School

Frequently Asked Questions

How do depression and anxiety affect college students?

College students may report mental health challenges like depression and anxiety that can interfere with their academic and social lives. Depression and anxiety can cause them to have low energy levels, dependability, mental ability, and optimism, hindering performance and concentration. Those suffering from depression and anxiety, or in rare cases both, may show a drop in lower grade point averages and drop out of institutions in severe cases.

Can you feel miserable in college?

Can you withdraw from college due to depression?

What happens if you drop out of college because of depression?

Additional Resources

Those who are themselves or know someone in immediate danger can call 9-1-1, contact medical professionals, go to an emergency room immediately, call the suicide and crisis lifeline at 988 to connect with a trained counselor, or text HOME to 741-741 to connect with Crisis Text Line’s crisis counselor from any part of the U.S. There are many people, organizations, and resources that can help one to get through tough times. People are on standby in such organizations who are ready to help without judgment. Some such organizations include

National Institute of Mental Health

The National Institute of Mental Health is the leading federal agency for resources and research on mental disorders. They provide resources to find a healthcare treatment or provider, decide if providers are right for them, understand more about mental disorders, and get immediate help during a crisis by contacting crisis counselors on their 988 suicide and crisis lifeline.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or AFSP is a kind of voluntary health organization giving those who are affected by suicide a community that is empowered with education, advocacy, and research. They support those affected by suicide and survivors of suicide. Many resources are listed on their website, including emergency resources, crisis services, access to various helplines, finding mental health care, additional resources for mental health conditions like alcoholics anonymous, and so on. 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

SAMHSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services leading to public health efforts advancing behavioral health nationwide. They have a Technology Transfer Centers (TTC) Program comprising three networks: Addiction Technology Transfer Center, Prevention Technology Transfer Center, and Mental Health Technology Transfer Center. They are a Provider’s Clinical Support System (PCSS), Clinical Support System for Serious Mental Illness (CSS-SMI), and more.

National Alliance on Mental Illness

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is one of the largest global mental health organizations aiming to better the lives of Americans affected by mental illness. They educate, listen, advocate, and support to improve the lives of people with mental illness or a loved one going through it. NAMI support groups offer a safe space for participants to share their experiences with other attendees.            


This organization is a one-of-a-kind online, anonymous resource designed specifically for men and their families to promote men’s mental health and reduce deaths by suicide. The content they provide is devised from evidence-based research and includes patient and clinician perspectives to ensure the reliability and accuracy of their content. They offer resources for finding a therapist at different locations, accessing various professional services, and much more.  

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