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Depression Awareness Month is a time to shine a light on how prevalent depression is and how to spot the signs and symptoms in young adults. However, with all of the mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic, awareness about depression needs to be raised every day.
According to the National College Health Assessment from the American College Health Association (ACHA), 30% of college students reported feeling so depressed that it was nearly impossible to function. As the impact of the pandemic is felt in the new normal of daily life and the way that schools safely operate, college students continue to be significantly affected both physically and emotionally by depression.
“Many students today are experiencing some level of depressed or sad mood,” said Dr. Jan Hall, executive director of mental health at TimelyMD. “A likely cause is the continuing changes, lack of stability and isolation that have resulted from COVID-19.”
Depression in college students
First, what is depression? The Mayo Clinic defines major depression as a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest for at least two weeks or longer. It’s normal to feel sad and down every once in a while, but these feelings usually go away after a short time. People with depression are different. They experience feelings of sadness and emptiness constantly, which ultimately begin to affect daily activities.
College students are particularly susceptible to depression. With the immense pressure to balance academics, social life, extracurriculars, and mental well-being it can all become too much to handle. This also may be the first time that they’re living away from home and the support system that they’re used to.
And as if college isn’t already stressful enough, students transitioned to online learning as the pandemic forced college and university campuses to close. This created feelings of isolation and uncertainty about the future and caused many students to develop symptoms of depression. A recent study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), found that during the pandemic, young adults with no prior history of mental illness reported struggling with symptoms of depression.
The pandemic also caused changes in physical activity, sleep, and physical activity patterns. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), says that depression looks different for young adults. They’re more likely to be irritable, have a negative outlook on life, and hypersomnia. They are also more likely to suffer from other mental health issues, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, panic disorder, and substance use disorder.
Signs and symptoms
According to The Jed Foundation (JED), it’s important to look for signs of depression in the teenage and college years, since this is when symptoms often first develop. These signs include changes in mood and thoughts, changes in behaviors, and physical symptoms. It’s important to note that not everyone experiences the same symptoms of depression.
Symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent low, down, and depressed mood
- Feelings of sadness or worthlessness
- Difficulties with concentration, memory, or decision-making
- Low self-esteem
- Thoughts about death and suicide
- Weight loss
- Other physical symptoms like headaches, digestive problems, muscle aches, and pains
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there is no one-size-fits-all solution to treat symptoms of depression. It takes time and patience to figure out the best mental health treatment for students.
JED reports that an estimated 2-15% of people who have major depression die by suicide. If someone is dealing with a depressive disorder, it’s important to watch for signs and symptoms that may indicate that the individual is at risk for suicide.
Help is also available through the national suicide prevention hotline: 800-273-8255.
Causes and risk factors
NIMH says depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Brain chemistry can impact whether or not someone experiences a mental health condition or mood disorders. Similarly, genetics also play a significant role.
Risk factors for depression include:
- Personal or family member history of depression
- Major life changes, trauma, or stress
- Certain physical illnesses and medications
- Chemical or hormonal imbalances
- Seasonal changes
- Gender – Women are more likely to struggle with depression
The first step toward getting proper treatment for depression is to find the cause. It can stem from feeling isolated and lonely, chronic illness, a traumatic event, relationship issues, substance abuse, or being in an environment that isn’t supportive. It’s important to seek help from a mental health professional to figure out the best treatment plan.
Although it can be hard to ask for help, mental well-being is essential and it will be beneficial in the long run. It takes time and commitment to find the right treatment and it’s even better if the person has a strong support system.
Support campus well-being on and off-campus
7 tips for managing depression in college students
Data from March through May 2020 found that 40.9% of students reported depression, and 30.5% said that their mental health negatively affected their academic performance. In September 2020, Active Minds revealed that 60.7% of students said they have experienced depression since the pandemic started. The pandemic made it harder for students to access a counseling center or mental health services on college campuses. As depression continues to increase among college students, here are seven considerations for managing mental health and well-being.
1. Talk to a professional
According to the NIMH, depression can be treated, even in its most severe forms. However, treatment is more effective the earlier it begins. This is why it’s important to speak with a mental health professional who can diagnose the issue, help uncover any medical issues that may be causing symptoms and recommend a treatment plan. Medication, talk therapy, or a combination of the two can be used to treat depression. Even if going to a clinic in person isn’t an option, a good place to start the conversation is with a virtual visit.
2. Get adequate sleep
All bodies are different, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy young adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. Getting enough sleep allows the body to recover which helps keep a person mentally and physically healthy. That’s why you’ve probably heard that you should get a “good night’s sleep” before a big day. It really makes a difference.
3. Practice mindfulness
It’s easy for college students to lose focus and feel scattered due to all the commitments they’re trying to balance, both socially and academically. That’s why mindfulness, which is defined as staying aware and conscious in the present moment, can be so helpful for individuals managing depression and other mental health issues. Mindfulness can be practiced through meditation, breathing techniques, participating in a yoga class, using a mindfulness app, or even listening to a mindfulness podcast. These are great ways to incorporate mental wellness and self-care into a daily routine.
4. Take care to manage stress
Being able to juggle the demands of a college student can be overwhelming. Major stress is a risk factor for depression, and college often presents major stressors like maintaining academic performance and creating new friendships. For students who are managing family, work, and other outside commitments, stress can be even more of an issue. It’s important to find what stress management techniques work best for each student. Diet, exercise, a support system, or journaling are all ways to manage stress.
5. Avoid drugs and alcohol
With the pressure placed on students to succeed academically, while still trying to fit in with the party culture on many college campuses, drug and alcohol use can easily become an issue. To add to that, the past year has caused many young adults to cope with their mental health with drinking and drugs. The Harvard School of Public Health determined in 2004 that 81.7% of students reporting poor mental health and/or depression drink alcohol. Substance abuse is often used as self-treatment for symptoms of depression and mental illness. This coping mechanism may work for short-term relief, but will make symptoms worse in the long run and should be avoided.
6. Improve nutrition
Eating well in college can be difficult. A student may even forget to eat due to studying for a test or having a jam-packed schedule. So, it may not seem realistic to make healthy choices when deciding what to eat. However, what you eat can make a big difference, and there are many simple, healthy snacks and foods that can help improve mental and physical wellness.
7. Strengthen connections with friends and family
Social connections play a critical role in supporting mental health. If a student is struggling with depression, friends or a trusted family member can be a good support system. Due to social distancing measures, it’s easy to feel isolated and disconnected from loved ones. This is an opportunity to get creative (e.g. virtual book clubs, video calls, online game nights) or return to some tried-and-true methods (e.g. letters, phone calls, group texts) to stay connected with those who matter most.
How higher education can support student mental health
When the pandemic forced college students off-campus and to transition to remote learning nobody knew what to expect. However, 60% of students say that this has been a negative experience for them. A study from BestColleges shows that 35% of college students feel they will have lasting mental health effects from their school’s changes during the pandemic.
Additionally, another revealed that 61% of college students are at risk of developing clinical depression. This means that the risk factor has doubled since the start of the pandemic. It’s not only essential but necessary for colleges and universities to provide their students with mental health services on and off-campus.
Adding more counseling centers to college campuses is helpful, but it likely won’t solve the root of the issue. It’s also important to take into consideration that young adults with depression often struggle to get out of bed and complete tasks. Giving these students access to things such as a virtual mental health professional or virtual talk therapy may make it more likely for them to seek help and create a mental health plan.
With the pandemic causing symptoms of depression and mental illness to become more prevalent, higher education must create a supportive campus environment for students. This must be prioritized from starting at the top for colleges and universities, so that leadership, faculty, and staff are on the same page when it comes to student health and well-being.
How telehealth services can help your campus
“Many students may feel depressed, but it is often a mild to moderate level of depressed mood,” said Dr. Hall. “If a student has a mild to moderate level of depressed mood, a person may have one or two of the symptoms or the symptoms are less intense, which is less difficult to treat.
However, this level of depressed mood can still make it hard to concentrate and enjoy college life. In this situation, using telecounseling is an excellent resource because the mental health provider and student can develop strategies that may prevent a major depressive disorder.”
For students managing depression or other mental health issues, they must be aware of the mental health services offered by the college or university. This is especially important for students away from campus or if campus access is limited due to social distancing. Many institutions have launched telehealth programs, like the one offered by TimelyMD, to extend mental health care beyond the campus and outside of traditional office hours.
Telehealth enables students to access emotional support 24/7/365. For students on a campus that offers telehealth services, be sure to download the application, create a profile, and/or take the necessary steps to have access to care when it’s needed. Most importantly, when a student needs mental health support, they must know how to reach out to friends, family, or professionals who can help.