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Depression Awareness Month is a time to shine the brightest light on how this prevalent issue in our society impacts college students. In 2020, however, a month doesn’t seem like enough time to raise awareness about depression. As the pandemic continues to impact daily life and how schools are able to safely operate, college students have been 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 a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest for at least two weeks or longer. Depression isn’t something that someone can snap out of or shake off. College students are particularly susceptible to depression because of feelings of being overwhelmed, homesick or anxious that usually accompany a student when they’re away from home — especially for the first time.
As students navigate creating their own schedules, choosing their own food and living with new roommates, the pressure can become too much. This is all before the COVID-19 pandemic and other stressors come into play. Due to the pandemic, remote learning has also become a new normal for many students, but 60% of students said that this has been a negative experience as well.
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 change in mood and thoughts, change 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.
- Low self-esteem.
- Thoughts about death and suicide.
- Loss of weight.
- Other physical symptoms like headaches, digestive problems, muscle aches and pains.
JED reports that an estimated 2-15% of people who have major depression die by suicide. If you or someone you know is dealing with a depressive disorder, it’s important to watch for signs and symptoms that may indicate that the indvidual is at risk for suicide.
Causes and Risk Factors
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors. Brain chemistry can impact whether someone experiences depression. Similarly, genetics also play a significant role.
Risk factors for depression include:
- Personal or family history of depression.
- Major life changes, trauma or stress.
- Certain physical illnesses and medications.
The Impact of Depression on College Students Today
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. Most recently in September 2020, Active Minds revealed that 60.7% of students said they have experienced depression since the pandemic started. As depression continues to increase during these challenging times, how can college students manage depression and its symptoms?
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 behavioral health professional who can diagnose the issue, help uncover any medical issues that may be causing symptoms and recommend a plan for treatment. Medication, talk therapy or a combination of the two can be used to treat depression. Even if you aren’t able to go to a clinic in person, start the conversation with a virtual visit, if that option is available to you.
2. Get adequate sleep.
Everyone’s body is different, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. Sleep is critical to keeping your mind and body healthy, and allows your body to recover each night to be ready for the next day. That’s why you’ve heard it said that you should get a “good night sleep” before a big test. 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 can be defined as staying aware and conscious in the present moment, can be so helpful for individuals managing depression and who need to limit stress. You can practice mindfulness by meeting with a therapist who emphasizes mindfulness, participating in a yoga class, using a mindfulness app on your phone or even listening to a mindfulness podcast.
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 you. Diet, exercise, a support system or journaling can all be ways to manage stress.
5. Avoid drugs and alcohol.
It’s no secret that drugs and alcohol are mood altering. 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 a coping mechanism that can become destructive for students dealing with depression.
6. Improve nutrition.
Eating well in college can be difficult. You may even forget to eat because you’re studying for a test. So, it may not seem realistic to make healthy choices when deciding what to eat. However, what you eat can make a big difference in how you feel, and there are many simple, healthy snacks and foods that can help you feel better.
7. Strengthen connections with friends and family.
This might seem obvious, but your social connections play a critical role in supporting your mental health. If you’re struggling with depression, let your friends and family know how they can support you. Your connections matter and factor into your mental health. Currently, with limits on how and where we can connect because of social distancing, it’s easy to feel isolated and disconnected from friends and family. You may have to get creative (e.g. virtual book clubs, video calls, online game nights) or go back to some tried-and-true methods (e.g. letters, phone calls, group texts) to stay connected with those who matter most to you (and who YOU matter most to!).
“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.”
If you’re managing depression or another mental health issue, be sure that you’re aware of the mental health resources offered through your college or university. This is especially important if you’re 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 business hours.
Telehealth enables students to access emotional support 24/7/365. If your campus offers telehealth services, be sure that you have already downloaded the application, created a profile and/or taken the necessary steps to have access to care when you need it. Most importantly, when you need mental health support, reach out to friends, family or professionals who can help.