College can be an exciting time, however it does come with significant and abrupt changes to daily life and routine. Some students settle in just fine after an initial adjustment period, while others may struggle with acclimating to their new lifestyle. A period of depression at college is very common.
Starting college involves many physical and especially mental adaptions and shifts of mind. It is a huge emotional transition accompanied by new challenges, pressures and responsibilities that a young person has never faced before. Students have to balance an unfamiliar schedule, new workload, adjust to either living on their own or with roommates and experience various stages of feeling homesick during the process.
Students are also struggling with the old age questions of, “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”
Trying to manage this new stage of life with all of its complexities can be extremely overwhelming. For some, this volume of stress and change may lead to and/or unmask symptoms of depression.
So what is depression, exactly?
Depression is a mood disorder that affects millions of people all over the world. It has both biological and environmental triggers. Depression is most commonly characterized with symptoms of:
- Persistent sadness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
- Lack of energy or motivation
- Possible sleep issues.
Though there are many varying degrees of depression, it is a condition that should always be taken very seriously.
Depression affects the way a person feels, thinks and behaves. It has the power to drive one’s life choices and can easily make the individual feel out of control of their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Depression has the capacity to cause a variety of emotional and psychosocial problems, relationship stress and academic decline, and it can also prompt unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance use and other high risk behaviors including gambling, promiscuity, driving under the influence or while distracted, etc. In extreme cases, it can lead to self-harm or suicide.
What are the signs a college student may be experiencing depression?
Depression can be difficult to recognize during college years. Many students find it challenging to seek help due to stigmas, embarrassment or lack of understanding of the condition, and therefore may not talk about symptoms with others.
For parents, it may be hard to recognize signs of depression because you are no longer living with your child, and therefore, are not spending as much time or having as much contact with him or her. For friends or roommates, depression symptoms can be hard to notice due to busy schedules, conflicting activities, schoolwork, etc.
Here are a few signs that an individual you know may be struggling with depression:
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
- Persistent sadness, hopelessness
- Lack of energy and motivation; excessive fatigue
- Social isolation
- Irritability; angry outbursts
- Sleep disturbances (sleeps too much or too little)
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Fixation on past failures; consistent negative outlook
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Physical aches and pain with no medical reason
How can I support a college student who is experiencing depression?
There are numerous ways you can support a college student experiencing depression. If symptoms are mild, the individual may respond well to help from friends, parents, roommates, etc. Others with more moderate to severe depression symptoms may require professional treatment, such as psychotherapy and/or medication.
Tips for parents:
- Be aware of risk factors and/or history of depression (your child or family)
- Prepare your student for college lifestyle changes so that they are not as overwhelming
- Demonstrate how to break up large tasks into small ones
- Maintain regular contact with your child (visits, phone, text, email)
- Connect your child with supportive family, friends and possibly counseling resources
- Explore campus resources with your child to help during the transition
- Encourage self-care (exercise, healthy eating, good sleep habits, relaxation)
- Research professional help in an area that your child is comfortable with
- Get involved; offer to learn more about depression, attend appointments, etc.
- Encourage your child’s involvement in hobbies, activities and social interactions when ready
Tips for friends and roommates:
- Be sensitive and aware of signs of depression
- Spend time with your friend/roommate to show that you care (watch TV together, study at the same time, go grocery shopping, do laundry, etc.)
- Ask about stress and workload at school and offer to help when able
- Encourage healthy activities to do together if your friend/roommate is willing (exercise, meal prep, etc.)
- Plan fun outings and social gatherings if your friend/roommate is feeling better and willing
Tips for everyone:
- Listen, validate and encourage
- Be present in the moment
- Take a non-judgmental approach
- Make the person aware that you wish to help and are there for them
- Offer to be a support on an ongoing basis
- Encourage seeking professional help from a therapist or physician
- Promote healthy boundaries. (It is important to set boundaries and involve higher forms of treatment if necessary. You can be there for the depressed person, however, you do not want to become overwhelmed.)
- Be aware of possible re-occurring symptoms
Remember, college is a time full of change and new beginnings. Be sensitive to the fact that each individual will experience college in their own way with their own challenges. Some students might need a little help along the way, and that’s okay. What’s important is that these signs are recognized early so the person you care about can receive the help they deserve to live a fulfilled life and succeed in college.
Chelsea Collins, LMSW is a Licensed Clinical Master Social Worker at the Northwest Clinic who joined the Pine Rest team in 2013. She earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and her Masters in Social Work from Grand Valley State University. Chelsea’s professional experience includes interning at The Children’s Assessment Center, working as a medical social worker in Cherry Health’s Adult Medicine Clinic and being a member of their clinical team in the Counseling Center. Chelsea has also served as an Adult Case Manager for two years on the CARE Team for Pine Rest Community Case Management.