On Campus... And Bummed Out

Published 09/09 2010 09:34AM

Updated 09/09 2010 10:25AM

After much anticipation, many college freshmen are finally on campus, adjusting to new faces and new places. But for some the transition brings stress and pressures that lead to depression.

High school senior Sarah has been busy narrowing down college choices and writing applications. She's excited but also a little worried. "I think it's going to be difficult to, you know, make all those new friends and adjust to it so quickly," she says. And it may be more difficult than she knows.

Researchers at San Diego State University, looking at the mental health of college kids going back to 1938, found a steady rise in the percentage of college kids experiencing severe anxiety and depression.

"They just get there and they're surprised by how much homesickness they may have, how much loneliness they may have amongst all these people," says psychiatrist Dr. John Lochridge.

He says it starts as stress: making new friends, the demands of college work, being on their own for the first time in their lives. "It's a little stressful, but I'm trying to hold it together," says college student Kasim Hasan, 19.

What's more, according to a study by the University of Michigan, college students who are depressed are twice as likely to drop-out of school.

Many high school seniors don't anticipate that part of the college experience and that's why parents should prepare them. "You open up that conversation. You say, 'You know, I think it's going to be harder than you think. It's a different kind of stress from anything you're used to,'" says Dr. Lochridge.

His advice: let them know it's OK to feel down at times and that you'll be there to listen. Also encourage them to share their struggles with a roommate or new friend because they're probably struggling, too.

Sarah realizes that struggle is part of becoming an adult. "It's all going to fall on me," says Sarah. "I have to get everything done, and hopefully I can become independent and rely on myself."

What We Need To Know

Depression is a medical condition. It can cause one to find the simplest tasks difficult to complete and can affect school attendance. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression strikes about 17 million American over the age of 17 each year. That's more than cancer, AIDS or coronary heart disease. An estimated one out of 10 children experiences difficulty escaping the symptoms of depression for long periods of time.

Some common reasons for depression, especially among college students, are: the loss of a significant relationship, leaving home, academic difficulties, parental conflict or concerns regarding one's future. Environmental and biochemical factors may also play a role in causing depression. In some cases of depression, the affected individual can become so overwhelmed that thoughts of hurting him or herself or even suicide may occur. An estimated 15 percent of chronic depression cases end in suicide. Symptoms of depression include:

  • The inability to experience pleasure, even from activities that once felt good.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
  • Isolation from friends, family and peers.
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits.
  • Fatigue.
  • Irritability.
  • Indecisiveness.
  • Poor concentration.

Everyone has or will experience feeling depressed at some point in their lives. Notable historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Ludwig von Beethoven, Georgia O'Keefe and Mark Twain all suffered from the disease.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, between 80 and 90 percent of all cases of depression can be treated effectively. However according to the National Institute of Mental Health, two-thirds of those suffering from depression don't get the help they need. Many fail to identify their symptoms or attribute them to lack of sleep or a poor diet. Others are just too fatigued or ashamed to seek help.

What should you do if you suspect that someone close to you is suffering from depression?

  • The most important thing is to remain supportive.
  • Do not blame the person for his or her depression.
  • Do not be confrontational or try to get the individual to "snap out of it."
  • Voice your concerns for the person's wellbeing.
  • State that you want to and are willing to help.
  • Open lines of communication. This can range from just listening to the person to seeking out help from a mental health professional.

For students adjusting to a new, more independent life on a college campus, the College Board offers the following strategies to help smooth this life transition:

  • Be prepared for harder work, with more reading, writing and problem sets than high school academics. Choose a course load that balances challenging classes with those that will be less intense.
  • Manage time, attend classes and complete assignments. Buy a calendar and make sure to write down when and where classes meet, when assignments are due, and when tests will take place. Give yourself ample time to study rather than waiting until the last minute and pulling an all-nighter.
  • You may not have the same day-to-day support system as you do now. For example, how will you manage your money and debt, especially when credit card companies are bombarding you with offers? Who is around to make sure you're not getting sick or run down? Factors like stress, late-night parties, and generally pushing yourself too hard can take a toll.
  • While forming new friendships can be exhilarating, true friendships are formed slowly, and the beginning of college can consequently be a lonely time. If you're unsure about participating in certain social scenes or activities, don't hesitate to seek guidance about the best ways to resist these pressures. Talk to parents, trusted friends from high school, and college counselors.

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