The reality of College Depression

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By Jasmine Maharisi – News Editor

When UNO senior and Gateway contributor Brittany Stevens was a freshman, she began succumbing to a wave of inexplicable sadness. It wasn’t the usual having-a-bad-day type of sadness, but a more intense feeling, a dark energy hovering over her like a proverbial rain cloud. “I felt overwhelmed by everything,” Stevens said. “I was sad all the time, and I had a really hard time trying to get myself out of bed in the morning. It was also hard to just be around people. It seemed like a chore.”

The experience of starting college coupled with the strange fog was too confusing for the then 19-year-old. She felt alone. She felt isolated. Most of all, she felt like she was losing control of her life.

Stevens is not alone. Every year, college students across the country fall victim to depression. A 2009 Associated Press – mtvU poll revealed that 42 percent of all college students experience symptoms of the illness, including change in appetite, lack of motivation, feeling hopeless and experiencing unusual fatigue.

Although these symptoms are prevalent, only a fraction of affected students seek help. For many, the stigma and misinformation about the illness cause them to keep their feelings to themselves.

But when it comes to depression, silence can be a fatal course of action.

According to the Center for Disease Control Prevention, approximately 1,350 college students commit suicide every year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 24. In most cases, families and friends of depressed students don’t realize their loved one is suffering until it’s too late.

Stevens’ parents knew something wasn’t quite right with their daughter. When she hit her breaking point, her family immediately assisted her with seeking help.

“My parents took me in for an evaluation after I had told them I didn’t want to live anymore,” Stevens said. “They had suspected I was depressed for a while.”

A time of transition

Nicole Naatz is a Licensed Mental Health Practitioner at UNO’s Counseling Center and sees firsthand how depression effects students’ lives. Though the illness is sometimes attributed to a chemical imbalance in the brain, Naatz said that stressful college situations can trigger depression.

“College is a time of transition anyway in that first year in college, especially if students have moved away from home or are living at home and their lives are changing and the relationships with their families are changing,” Naatz said. “So just the transition in general of coming to school and being more responsible for themselves [can be overwhelming].”

Naatz said college students often feel immense pressure from their classes and activities and take it hard if they don’t do well.

“The amount of tasks that college demands of your time and your energy is stressful,” Naatz said. “Sometimes that transition is really tough because students who used to do really great in high school and didn’t have to put a lot of time and effort into getting good grades now [discover] it’s totally different. Now they have to adjust to this new circumstance, these new demands and the new expectations. And it takes awhile to figure that out.”

Naatz pointed out that college students are generally ambitious and set high expectations for themselves. Falling short of those expectations can leave them feeling disappointed. Sometimes these unrealistic expectations are just a way for students to set themselves up for failure, especially without a realistic perspective of just how much effort college classes really demand.

Students are typically expected to spend between two to three hours studying for every one credit hour they take, depending on their grade levels in school. Advanced level and honors classes require even more. For a course load of 15 semester hours, students can expect an additional 30 to 45 hours of study time a week. And most students hold part-time or full-time jobs in addition to their studies.

“UNO students in particular tend to work too much,” Naatz said. “They tend to be good employees and so their employers want them to work more. They have a hard time turning that down because it’s more money.”

Naatz said it’s important for students to be realistic about how much they can work and still continue their course loads.

For Stevens, depression had affected her ability to deal with the pressures of college life. Her grades began to drop because of missed classes and a decrease in performance on assignments.

“I’ve had to drop quite a few classes when I’ve gone through major bouts of depression because I get to the point where I just can’t deal with things anymore,” Stevens said. “My grades have also suffered because of missing multiple classes because of my inability to deal with things when I’m going through strong bouts of depression.”

Beyond the darkness

Stevens’ parents recognized their daughter’s abnormal behavior and helped her find the resources she needed. Stevens, now 24, is being treated with a combination of therapy and medication. For her, finding the right combination was truly a lifesaver.

Like Stevens, those who suffer from depression can find relief, or at least be given tools to cope with the illness. These tools, such as talk-therapy, meditation, support groups or medication, can prevent students from attempting to self-medicate themselves with drugs, alcohol or other unhealthy behaviors, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, that will often lead to much larger issues.

But knowing when to seek help is often an issue with college students, Naatz said.

“A lot of times students say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to stress my friends out because they’re having a hard time, too,'” she said. “But they need to talk with someone, so if they’re not talking to friends or family, then it’s probably a good idea to come in and talk with a counselor. [Or] if they see their grades declining, their relationships declining, because that’s what we define as a mental health issue is when it starts to interfere with work, school or relationships. So if they see a decline in any of those three areas, it’s a good idea to come in.”

Naatz said she’s seen an increase in the number of students using the UNO Counseling Center from last year, but she’s hesitant to associate the increased numbers with an upward trend in depression.

“Our numbers are definitely up,” she said. “There can be a lot of reasons for that. It might be that people are more aware of our services, it might be that feeling less of stigma to come into counseling because it’s becoming more socially acceptable and it might be that faculty are more aware of our services so they’re referring students over more.”

Naatz also agreed that the current economical situation might have an impact on students’ moods, prompting them to seek out help. Also, more students with a prior history of mental illness are attending college now than have been in the past.

“Fifteen years ago, students with severe depression and anxiety wouldn’t have necessarily come to college because the medical care wasn’t there,” she said. “Prescription medication wasn’t easily accessible, so students are coming to campus who have previously been diagnosed but have been getting the medical care they needed in order to function well and make it in a college environment.”

In our own backyard

The UNO Counseling Center offers students an initial assessment to help determine the best treatment. It also provides short-term counseling and can work in-house with a student for up to eight or 10 sessions. If a student requires more treatment, the center can provide referrals to other organizations in community.

“We’re a great referral source,” Naatz said. “We can do short-term counseling and assessments here to see kind of where they’re at. Also, we have psychiatrists who come to campus every two weeks and we share those with the Student Health Center, but they come to the Counseling Center to meet with the students.”

The sessions are free, as are assessments, walk-in crisis counseling and psychiatrist visits. The programs and resources available in the Counseling Center are paid with student fees.

UNO junior Christina Baxter* has experienced first-hand the resources available at the Counseling Center. Last year, Baxter’s older brother died, leaving the 23-year-old devastated. This year, Baxter encountered another loss when a friend committed suicide.

“I was referred to an outside agency because they predicted I would need longer-term assistance than their office could handle,” Baxter said. “I returned again this year, right as the office was closing, and they referred me to Student Health Services due to my situation.”

Baxter’s situation was unique and required inpatient treatment at a hospital. But fully benefiting from hospitalization requires consistent on-going treatment.

“Essentially, I was discharged from a hospital without follow-up care or enough medication,” she said. “The hospital doctor refused to refill my prescription, so basically I was stuck without medication after being put on mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications. Student Health Services, however, set me up with the first available appointment with a doctor for the following week. They put me on a call-list in case another patient canceled their appointment.”

To Baxter’s luck, one did cancel and she was seen by a doctor who gave her a refill on her medication. She was also able to schedule a follow-up appointment the next month. The center referred her to an outside organization that could continue her treatment.

During critical points in her depression, Baxter had to take time off from school. Like Stevens, Baxter is currently managing her depression. She returned to her studies this fall and plans to graduate next year.

*Last name has been changed.

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