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Depression in College Students: Simple Screening May Help

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College students regularly face a wide variety of challenges and pressures that make it easy for anyone to feel overwhelmed. Even though it’s exciting, the transition between high school and college can also be a tough pill to swallow for some students.

A new study reports that between one-fifth and one-quarter of students who visit university health centers for physical ailments—such as colds or flue—are depressed. The researchers who conducted the study recommend depression screening for all students.

Simple Depression Screening Can Save Lives

According to U.S. News and World Report Health News, depression often goes undiagnosed in students because most university health centers don’t screen for the condition.

“Depression screening is easy to do, we know it works, and it can save lives. It should be done for every student who walks into a health center,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Michael Fleming, a professor of family and community medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Together with his colleagues, Fleming surveyed 1,622 college students who went to health centers at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington and the University of British Columbia. In addition to finding that 20 to 25% of those students were depressed, the researchers also found that 2 to 3% of the depressed students have had suicidal thoughts or are considering suicide.

The study, titled Depression and Suicide Ideation Among Students Accessing Campus Health Care, was published in the January 2011 edition of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Cases of College Depression are Rising

According to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, the rate of students reporting ever having been diagnosed with depression increased 56% between 2000 and 2005, from 10% to 16 percent. The survey also found that 36% of more than 20,000 students questioned at 48 schools were so depressed that it had caused difficulty functioning on one to 10 occasions during the previous year, reports Forbes.

Dr. Rachel Glick, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and former co-chair of the Presidential Task Force on Mental Health on College Campuses, told Forbes that depression among college-aged students has most likely grown due to more diagnoses—an effect of increased awareness of the condition—and because of more campus mental health resources as well as a greater willingness to discuss the problem and seek treatment for it.

Depression Often Leads to Dropping Out of College

Students with depression are twice as likely to drop out of college, according to results of a 2009 study led by Daniel Eisenberg, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Many college students with depression—as well as members of the general population with depression—remain untreated.

“Maybe the biggest reason is only about 50 percent of people with depression say they think they need help,” Eisenberg said in a 2009 Science Daily article. “College students in particular may feel that stress is normal.”

Eisenberg’s research also indicates that lower grade point averages depend upon a student’s type of depression. There are two core symptoms of depression—loss of interest and pleasure in activities, or depressed mood—but only loss of interest is associated with lower grade point averages.

10 Symptoms of College Depression

Signs and symptoms of a type of depression known as an adjustment disorder begin within three months of a stressful life event, such as going away to college. It’s important to remember, though, that depression may occur at any time.

The Mayo Clinic reports that college students dealing with depression are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and perform poorly in school than their peers. Difficulty concentrating may cause a young adult to have trouble finishing schoolwork, skip classes, lose interest in extracurricular activities or even drop out, as Eisenberg’s research revealed.

The Mayo Clinic also provides a list of common signs and symptoms which may indicate depression in college students or the general population.

1. Feelings of sadness or unhappiness

2. Irritability, frustration, agitation or restlessness

3. Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities

4. Insomnia or excessive sleeping

5. Changes in appetite or weight

6. Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration

7. Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy

8. Feelings of worthlessness or guilt

9. Trouble with thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things

10. Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide

7 Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression which appears at the same time each year. People with SAD typically have symptoms of depression and unexplained fatigue as winter approaches and daylight hours become shorter. When spring returns and days become longer again, people with SAD experience relief from their symptoms. Some college students display symptoms of SAD when returning to college after winter break.

Health.com provides seven signs which may indicate SAD.

1. Sadness

2. Sleepiness and fatigue

3. Irritability and anger

4. Increased appetite

5. Carb cravings

6. Difficulty concentrating

7. Loss of interest in sex

As with other types of depression, symptoms of SAD can be mild, severe or anywhere in between. Mild symptoms interfere less with the ability to participate in everyday activities while stronger symptoms can interfere much more.

7 Steps to Help Cope with College Depression

Mental Health America, formerly known as the National Mental Health Association, acknowledges that the massive number of life changes that occur during the college years can sometimes trigger serious depression. If you think that you or someone you know is depressed, seek assistance from a doctor or mental health professional, or visit the university counseling service or student health center.

While receiving treatment for depression, the following seven steps provided by Mental Health America should help college students cope on their road to recovery.

1. Carefully plan your day.

2. Plan your work and sleep schedules.

3. Participate in an extracurricular activity.

4. Seek support from other people.

5. Try relaxation methods.

6. Take time for yourself every day.

7. Work towards recovery.

Please note: the informational content of this article should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional health care advice. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, please contact your medical health professional or visit your student health center or college counseling service.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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Shreail almost 8 years ago Shreail

I agree with the findings from this research. College students often conform to the environment in which they are in. They may not want to be in that particular situation, but they don't want to feel like an outcast either. Along with the peer pressure comes studying and trying to prove themselves worthy of being in college, especially if the parents of that student is big on their child being successful.