Depression in College: You’re Not Alone

By Ghazal Farajzadeh

Crazy ragers, meeting your best friends, figuring yourself out and, oh, working towards your future.

We all had that image in our mind coming in as freshman, even if it was for a split second—you know, that this is going to be the best four years of my life. College is this fun, crazy and explorative time.

College students are portrayed on TV and movies as carefree and constantly partying. But let’s face it, being a student is rough and the expectations that come with it can be overwhelming.

Not only have over 100,000 college students sought after counseling in 140 different institutions, but more than 30 percent have reported that they are “so depressed, it was difficult to function” according to a 2011 survey by the American College Health Association.

Given how common depression is among college students, starting a new life in a completely different environment without the support system from back at home can quickly become a huge adjustment for students.

“September of my freshman year, I was taking harder classes, I hadn’t seen my family and I was having trouble with my roommates,” says University of Florida sophomore Katie Tate.

“Every day got harder and I didn’t have someone to talk to because when you tell people, they judge you and don’t know how to act,” she says.

When you start college, one of the first things you want to do is meet new  people—whether they’ll be your study buddy, party partner, or late-night-talks confidante.

However, mental illnesses such as depression place restrictions on people that make it harder for them to make the same day-to-day connections.

Some days it’s hard to get out of bed. There’s a little voice just telling you you’re an awful person,” says Tate. “I could sleep all day and stay in my room, even if I know it would help to get out. I don’t have as many friends as I would like to because of it. I feel like everyone else is presenting themselves so well and I stick out.”

To deal with depression, students can find ways to incorporate hobbies and healthy habits that they have found to be effective in helping them day-to-day.

“I coped with it with band—it was an artistic outlet,” says UF sophomore Marc Wissel of dealing with his depression“I noticed my depression was always worse after marching band season.”  

However, not all coping mechanisms are positive. Coping can spiral into a more serious form, as some individuals may turn to self-harm. Wissel eventually began cutting one day when he felt especially stressed.

“I had no control and grabbed my razor,” says Wissel. “It became a ritual. I had dim-lighting, locked my door and just felt completely better,” he says. “I couldn’t control my depression, but I was controlling my pain.”

Self-harm is an extreme and dangerous form of coping and quickly becomes habit forming. In fact, 17 percent of college students have performed some kind of self harm.

“When I was 14, I began self-harming. After a while, it’s kind of like you have to [self-harm]; my arms would get sore if I didn’t do it. It took my mind off everything that was going on even though afterwards, I would feel awful,” UF freshman Madison McGroarty says.

For those living with depression, the effects can be crippling not only in day-to-day life, but long term as well.

“It’s like you have a 100 fishhooks in your body, it hurts to move and get out of bed. I have this melancholic feeling, a weepiness that I can cry at any moment. Waking up is the worst, I’d be so upset to have to get up and go through another day,” Wissel says. “Depression limits a person, I had to switch my specialization in my major because I knew my mental health couldn’t handle [the amount of stress it caused]. It’s frustrating because I knew I could do it if I wasn’t depressed.”

Chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine influence mood. Chemical imbalances can benefit from prescription medication. For many, this is only way to recover.

One third of patients diagnosed with depression take prescription medication.

“It’s like the blinds to a dark room were closed and then for a second they open and you see light for a moment,” Wissel explains about his response to medication. But it wasn’t always perfect.

“Lexapro made me feel dreamy, hazy—not really aware of what was going on,” he adds. “I had short-term fluctuations where I was manic then I was depressed within 10 minutes, and that was even more debilitating.”

On the other hand, treatment may not be an option for some. Insurance costs are a factor for some and for others, their self-identity is tied to their depression.

Depression has become a part of me, I can’t imagine my life without it,” Tate says. ”You just think: What am I going to be without my depression?”

In college, it can seem—on the surface level, at least—like everyone is coping well with life’s stressors. That may not be the case. You don’t hear or see many people talking about what’s going wrong with their life. But the truth is, anyone can be depressed—no matter how they appear on the outside.

“You couldn’t tell I was depressed. I was active, making jokes, having fun,” says Wissel. “People with depression, it’s not part of their personality—it’s a condition. A person with any illness can be outwardly happy,”

Overall, depression isn’t as uncommon as it may seem. People openly talk about when they have physical issues, such as a cold or a broken bone, but so many people remain “hush-hush” about depression, so no one really knows what’s going on.

Depression is already a very sensitive topic and carries a stigma in our society. More than 22 studies have shown that embarrassment is a big obstacle in getting the necessary treatment.

People have become so good at hiding their emotions that as students we have to find creative ways to help our peers and make sure to open up a conservation because it’s not enough to just enough to tell people that we’re here for them.

“I want to be able to go up to people. It sucks being alone. I’ve been there, done that—I know how it feels so I don’t want others to go through it,” UF sophomore Lilyan Moss says. “But I don’t want to get too close. I don’t want to talk, but I need to break that barrier. You need to take that one step to reach out. It takes a lot of courage to do it.”

“Depression is the most empty and tiring thing you can feel. It’s weird being young and unhappy,” McGroarty says. “I try and take an hour for myself and do something happy. I have more bad days than good, but at least I’m having good days.”

Related: “Is Your Academic Stress Actually a Treatable Anxiety Disorder?”

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