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College Students and Depression: It's More Common Than You Think

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Depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders are increasingly common mental health issues on college campuses. Nearly half of all college students report feeling so depressed that they had trouble functioning with 15 percent meeting the criteria for clinical depression. If left untreated, depression can lead to suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. It is imperative for college students to seek help with mental health issues.

The National Mental Health Association quotes a study that says 30% of college freshmen report feeling overwhelmed a great deal of the time. College students are vulnerable to mental illnesses ranging from depression to anxiety disorders. The ages of 18-25 are the prime age for serious mental health conditions to emerge.

The symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, irritable, and empty moods
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Significant appetite or weight changes
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Feeling tired or run-down
  • Feeling restless or agitated
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, or emptiness
  • Persistent physical symptoms such as headaches or digestive problems that do not respond to treatment
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Suicide attempts
  • Poor hygiene – not bathing or dressing without care

It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone with depression will experience every symptom. Many students don’t know that what’s happening to them has a name, a cause, or a range of treatments. Without proper help, depressed students may fall behind in class and withdraw from friends and activities.

Often, it’s a student’s roommate, friend, or RA who is the first to notice that something has changed. These people are often the first to alert the depressed student. The person with depression is often the last to recognize they’ve got something going on.

Major depression is highly treatable. The first step to getting treatment is an evaluation for depression by a physician or mental health professional. A physical examination by a physician can rule out other possible causes for the symptoms you are experiencing. Most colleges have a student health center. This may be a good place to start. If you are not referred to a mental health professional on campus, contact the counseling center. Some counseling centers may not be equipped to handle long-term mental health concerns. If they are not, ask for a referral to a local psychiatrist or mental health center.

A common complaint of college students seeking mental health treatment is that they have to wait two or three weeks for an initial counseling appointment. If you feel like you cannot wait that long for help, make this known. You may be able to get a referral to an off-campus agency. Of course, if you are feeling suicidal, go to the nearest emergency room, contact your campus safety department, or call a suicide hotline for help. 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can put you in touch with a crisis center in your area.

A variety of treatments are available for major depression. These include medications, short-term talk therapy (psychotherapy), or a combination of both. Psychotherapy helps students develop strategies for dealing with events, conflicts and relationships in their lives. The medications can balance the levels of brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that are disturbed in depressed people. Medications adjust the levels of the chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) in the brain. These chemical are disturbed in depressed people. Medication use may be short or long term. It usually takes a few weeks of treatment before a therapeutic effect occurs.

Students are seeking mental health help in record numbers. Use of campus mental health services has risen at almost all schools over the past three years, with 13 percent of students now using campus mental health services. This is according to a 2007 survey by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. This may be a sign that people are becoming more comfortable discussing their problems or that mental illness carries less of a stigma than it used to. Campus mental health professionals are seeing more and more students already being treated for mental health issues when they arrive on campus. The American College Health Association estimates that about 10 percent of college students arrive on campus with a prior diagnosis of depression or other mental illness. It is essential to continue treatment after arriving on campus.

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