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Depression and College Students

Many people experience the first symptoms of depression during their college years.

Unfortunately, many college students who have depression aren’t getting the help they need. They may not know where to go for help, or they may believe that treatment won’t help. Others don’t get help because they think their symptoms are just part of the typical stress of college, or they worry about being judged if they seek mental health care.

Most colleges offer free or low-cost mental health services to students. Depression is a medical illness and treatments can be very effective. Early diagnosis and treatment of depression can relieve depression symptoms, prevent depression from returning, and help students succeed in college and after graduation.

In 2009, the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA)—a nationwide survey of college students at 2- and 4-year institutions— found that nearly 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some time in the past year.

Depression can affect your academic performance in college. Studies suggest that college students who have depression are more likely to smoke. Research suggests that students with depression do not necessarily drink alcohol more heavily than other college students. But students with depression, especially women, are more likely to drink to get drunk and experience problems related to alcohol abuse, such as engaging in unsafe sex. It is not uncommon for students who have depression to self-medicate with street drugs.

Depression is also a major risk factor for suicide. Better diagnosis and treatment of depression can help reduce suicide rates among college students. In the Fall 2009 ACHA–NCHA survey, about 6 percent of college students reported seriously considering suicide, and about 1 percent reported attempting suicide in the previous year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens and young adults ages 15 to 24.

Students should also be aware that the warning signs can be different in men vs. women. 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function”. The symptoms of major depression are disabling and interfere with everyday activities such as studying, eating, and sleeping. People with this disorder may have only one episode of major depression in their lifetimes. But more often, depression comes back repeatedly.

Dysthymic disorder, also called dysthymia. Dysthymia is mild, chronic depression. The symptoms of dysthymia last for a long time—2 years or more. Dysthymia is less severe than major depression, but it can still interfere with everyday activities. People with dysthymia may also experience one or more episodes of major depression during their lifetimes. Minor depression. Symptoms of minor depression are similar to major depression and dysthymia, but they are less severe and/or are usually shorter term. Without treatment, however, people with minor depression are at high risk for developing major depressive disorder.

Other types of depression include: Psychotic depression—severe depression accompanied by some form of psychosis, such as hallucinations and delusions Seasonal affective disorder—depression that begins during the winter months and lifts during spring and summer.

Some people carry genes that increase their risk of depression. But not all people with depression have these genes, and not all people with these genes have depression. Environment—your surroundings and life experiences, such as stress, also affects your risk for depression. Stresses of college may include: Living away from family for the first time Missing family or friends Feeling alone or isolated Experiencing conflict in relationships Facing new and sometimes difficult school work Worrying about finances. Some people find that a combination of antidepressants and psychotherapy works best. A doctor or mental health care provider can help you find the treatment that’s right for you. Antidepressants work on brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and norepinephrine. Other antidepressants work on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Scientists have found that these particular chemicals are involved in regulating mood, but they are unsure of the exact ways that they work.

These centers may also refer you to mental health care providers in the community for additional services. Student health centers provide basic health care services to students at little or no cost. A doctor or health care provider may be able to diagnose and treat depression or refer you to other mental health services. If your college does not provide all of the mental health care you need, your insurance may cover additional mental health services. Many college students have insurance through their colleges, parents, or employers. If you are insured, contact your insurance company to find out about your mental health care coverage. Treatment can help you feel better. To help yourself feel better: Try to see a professional as soon as possible. Research shows that getting treatment sooner rather than later can relieve symptoms quicker and reduce the length of time treatment is needed. Break up large tasks into small ones, and do what you can as you can. Try not to do too many things at once. Spend time with other people and talk to a friend or relative about your feelings. Do not make important decisions until you feel better. Discuss decisions with others whom you trust and who know you well.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) sponsors research on the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of depression, including studies focused on adolescents and young adults. NIMH is sponsoring research on the effectiveness of mental health programs for college students. NIMH is also funding research on new strategies to help students adjust to college life and to reduce suicidal thinking and behavior.

Citations 1. Eisenberg D, Golberstein E, Gollust SE. Help-seeking and access to mental health care in a university student population. Medical Care. 2007; 45(7):594–601. 2. American College Health Association. American College Health Association National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2009. Linthicum, MD: American College Health Association; 2009. 3. Eisenberg D, Gollust SE, Golberstein E, Hefner JL. Prevalence and correlates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among university students. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 2007

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