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Fighting the First-Year Blues: What’s Behind the Epidemic of Depression on College Campuses…and What You Can Do About It

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Going off to college for the first time is often a monumental change of pace – one that can be difficult for students to cope with. This rite of passage marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood in our culture, and with it comes a broad array of new demands and responsibilities. The sudden independence, the homesickness, the disconnection from familiar friends and family, the challenging demands of college – taken together, it can all be too much to bear.

For some first-year students, a sense of isolation and melancholy can be hard to escape, especially during those first few weeks on campus. However, for most freshmen, these feelings tend to dissipate as they begin to make friends and get into the swing of their new schedule.

But what if they don’t? For an estimated 10% of American college students, what might seem like isolated episodes of sadness may actually be symptoms of a more serious disorder: clinical depression. If left untreated, depression can seriously impair your ability to function. In some cases, severe depression may lead to self-injury or even suicide.

So how do you know if your gloomy mood is just a passing phase or a sign of something more serious? Take a look at these common signs of depression. If you or a friend is experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to a counselor or a qualified medical professional as soon as possible.

* An overwhelming sense of sadness or despair. The most common symptom of depression is an oppressive, ever-present sense of sadness. Everyone experiences this symptom differently, but most people with depression report that it is much different and more all-encompassing than the passing sense of sadness or grief that you might experience after having a fight with a partner, or after getting a bad grade on a test. When you’re depressed, a bleak sadness may seem to color every moment of your life, even when you should be having fun.

* Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. With “normal” sadness, you usually have a sense that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak; even when you’re feeling lousy, you know it won’t last forever. Not so with depression: you might feel like there’s no way you’re ever going to get better and that there’s no use trying anymore. The sense of hopelessness can make you feel even worse, kicking off a brutal downward spiral.

* Withdrawal from people and activities you once liked. People with depression often describe their symptoms as a kind of sweeping numbness that infects all of their interactions and activities. If you no longer feel able to enjoy and appreciate the people, hobbies, and interactions that once made you happy, you could be experiencing the symptoms of depression.

* Sleep disturbances. Between the demands of studying and dealing with your noisy roommates, it can be difficult to get a decent night’s sleep in college. But if you find yourself continually unable to sleep as well as you used to, you might be at risk for depression. Any significant change in sleep patterns may be a sign of a problem, whether it’s sleeping too little or sleeping much more than typical.

* Appetite, eating, and weight changes. Again, there’s a lot of variation in the way that people experience the symptoms of depression. But if you’ve noticed a significant, sustained change in your hunger, eating patterns, or weight, it could be a sign of a problem. Whether you’ve lost your appetite or you find yourself suddenly gaining weight, depression may be to blame.

Have you known any college students who have encountered depression on campus? Do you think you could be at high risk for depression when you go off to college? Share your experiences in the comments.

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First year student over 5 years ago First year student

I've had recurrent, clinical depression for most of my teenage years. I've had intensive therapy and a plethora of different medications yet the stress of my final year of highschool and first year of University have exacerbated it to the point where it is crippling. All I do is sleep, and cry. And I hide it from everyone, my family, the friends that I never see because I don't want to see anyone.. So everyone thinks I'm doing okay. I just wish I was normal, so I could cope with this. I know I could do amazingly at University, but I just have no motivation, no belief in myself, no energy. I don't care anymore. I don't know what to do, my first exams are coming up next week and I'm bound to fail them, and I have 2 assignments that are still overdue, even with the extensions on them...