The beginning of freshman year can be the most exciting time in a girl’s life. More times than not, she’s excited to put her high school drama behind her and start a new, awesome life at her school of choice. She daydreams about instantly having innumerable friends, being in the “cool” sorority, snagging her dream man with ease, and acing every class with little to no effort.
In a dream world, college is the perfect place to be the girl you’ve always wanted to be. But what happens when you miss your friends from home, the “cool” sorority doesn’t ask you back, your dream man turns out to be a player, and class is much more stressful than you ever could have imagined? Unhappiness can quickly set in, and in more extreme cases, depression can become a way of life.
According to a 2009 poll by mtvU, one out of every 10 college students reported signs of moderate to severe depression. While this number may seem minuscule, the constant pressures of college life and the huge change in lifestyle may cause college students to tumble into a depression.
Why College Students?
College students become depressed for the same reason as other people, says Dr. David Leibow, author of When College is Not the Best Time of Your Life. Oftentimes, it’s because of a feeling of loss or because of a specific event in a person’s life. “Usually, if a depression is serious enough, it has to be treated regardless of if there was a precipitated event,” says Leibow. The most common reason why college students become depressed, however, is because of suffering grades. “Students go to college hoping to do well, and either they can’t cope with the workload or they are unprepared to do the amount of work that college requires,” he says. “They become overwhelmed, they give up, they’re disappointed with themselves and then they become depressed.”
One Arizona State University student says she initially thought that keeping up with her grades in college would be just as easy as it was in high school. “I was, for the most part, a good student in high school. I wasn’t at the top of my class by any means, but I typically got by with B’s with little effort. When I came to college, the party scene got to me, and I didn’t realize that going out all the time would make my grades suffer. I was wrong. I’m not so sure that I was actually depressed, but I was really upset that my college life had come to that.”
While academic floundering is the largest contributor to depression in college, there are dozens of other reasons why students can become depressed. A junior at the University of New Hampshire attributed her depression to the huge change from high school to college.
“I’m from Massachusetts, and while my college wasn’t too far away from home, pretty much everyone who goes to UNH is from New Hampshire. They were so close to home and could go home whenever they wanted, but I sort of felt trapped at school. It’s a huge school and was a huge change from my tiny high school, so it was hard to find a group of friends that I really clicked with. I ended up sleeping all day and skipping classes, so finally my parents caught on and had me see someone to talk about it.”
While another student never actually spoke with someone about her potential depression, she said that missing her family and her home made her feel sad all the time.
“When my parents dropped me off at college I figured I’d be fine. But it’s such a huge change. I was so used to the comforts of my house, my family always being around, my mom’s food, having a car, and just being in my town. Going from a nice, warm comfortable house to a dorm room made out of cinderblocks is enough to make anyone feel sad and miss being home.”
Problems with high school relationships can also contribute to depression on campus. One former Bentley University student said that she felt so alone when her boyfriend of three years broke up with her, that she plummeted into a depression.
“If that had happened just a few months before, obviously I would have been sad, but it would have just taken me a little bit of time to get over it. But instead I was at college and I wasn’t with my friends from home who normally would have done everything they could to help me and make me feel better. I had already made some friends, but the bonds I had with them weren’t nearly as strong as with my friends from home, so I felt like I was dealing with this huge emotional stress by myself. I ended up going home because I just wanted to be with my family.”
The huge stress of college, whether it’s from the huge workload, difficulty adjusting to the new lifestyle, a breakup, or any kind of traumatic event, can cause even the most put-together and outgoing girl to become depressed. Still, there is a difference between being depressed and just feeling sad, as the symptoms of depression are much more extreme.
What are the symptoms of depression?
While there are different degrees of depression, the symptoms, for the most part, are similar. “The symptoms of major depression are a decreased ability to enjoy things, decreased motivation, decreased energy and concentration, negativity, pessimism, hopelessness, changes in appetite and sleep, and sometimes thoughts of death, suicide and very negative thoughts,” says Leibow.
College women who are depressed can often find themselves feeling hopeless about a situation and feeling like there is no way to fix it. Depressed women sometimes sleep all day or not at all, and can see rapid changes in weight due to overeating to deal with the stress or not eating at all. Some women who had great hobbies in high school will find it hard to enjoy these anymore, and others sometimes cannot concentrate in class or on menial tasks. Still, the symptoms of depression vary from person to person, and individuals can display anywhere from one to all of the symptoms.
How do you know if it’s actually depression?
Leibow says that depression is not something that you can diagnose yourself, so it’s important to get evaluated by a professional if you’re feeling sad all the time. If the sadness is prolonged, don’t just assume you’re having a bad couple of weeks. “People will explain away their depression and it will continue longer than it should,” Leibow says. “This is one of those problems that has to be treated seriously.”
Still, remember that there is a difference between feeling blue for a couple days and developing clinical depression that can end up affecting your life. While it’s impossible to diagnose depression on your own, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and your feelings so you know when to seek help. Depression is often characterized by a feeling of sadness or hopelessness for two or more weeks, so if you’ve been feeling down for an extended amount of time, it’s important to see someone about it.
What can you do?
If you are feeling unhappy and feel like you may be depressed, Leibow suggests heading to the student health center to get properly evaluated. “It may turn out that when you go, the person evaluating you will say, ‘This is not serious, we can just talk over some issues bothering you,’” says Leibow. If the problem is serious, the health center can set you up with a psychiatrist who can help you work through your problems. If necessary, he or she can prescribe you some antidepressants to help pull you out of the depression.
One senior at Syracuse University said she was feeling sad all the time, and after debating back and forth, finally decided to get some help. After speaking with someone at the health center, she was diagnosed with mild depression and set up counseling once per week to sort through her problems.
“At first I was really nervous about going, because I was scared to find out what they were going to tell me. Finally, after I talked to my friends about it and they convinced me to at least speak with somebody, it was such a relief. Now I’m feeling much better about myself, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t go.”
A junior at the University of Massachusetts sought help from her doctor from home when she was feeling unhappy about her poor grades.
“My mom noticed that my grades were slipping and even though she knew I was always at the library and trying to get extra help from teachers, I somehow couldn’t get it together freshman year. I was really discouraged by it and started losing motivation to try hard. She brought me to the doctor to talk about things, and while I wasn’t depressed, my grades were putting a damper on my college life. Together, we figured out a plan to fix things.”
Even if your constant sadness does not turn out to be serious, the best thing to do is to take precautionary measures and get yourself checked out. Depression is a serious issue and can completely affect your social and emotional life if it’s not treated. If you’re feeling blue and it’s lasting more than two weeks, make an appointment to speak with a psychiatrist to get your life back on track.
Dr. David Leibow, author of When College is Not the Best Time of Your Life
College students from across the country