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Depression and College Students

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The blue furrowed brows of two faces pensive in the dark.

It's estimated that one in five people will experience depression at some time in their lives - and students are by no means exempt from this. Going to university can sometimes trigger off all sorts of difficult and unfamiliar feelings - after all, it's a pretty stressful time.

If you're just starting your course, this may be the first time you've been away from home on your own. While that does offer freedom, it can also be scary to let go of your support network and family ties. Trying to find your own identity away from people who've known you all your life is also sometimes more terrifying than exciting. It's easy to look at the other people around you and feel as if 'everyone else has got it together' except you. Add to that the pressure to be having a great time, and to live up to the partying, drinking image of students, not to mention any loneliness from missing friends from home and being in an unfamiliar place - and you may well get enough triggers to set off a bout of depression.

What Do you Mean, Depressed?

Depression as an illness is very different from just feeling blue, or down. Everyone has 'low days' when, for whatever reasons, you feel a bit blue, or not your usual cheerful self. Sometimes just talking things over with a mate can help, or catching up on your sleep, or getting that overdue essay done and handed in. Things soon begin to look brighter, and the world is all right once more. But when 'a bad day' turns into 'a bad week' and lingers into 'a bad month', then it's probably time to get some help. Clinical depression is generally diagnosed by the presence of a combination of the following factors, which hang around for more than two weeks:

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness

  • Feeling useless, inadequate, bad and guilty

  • Self hatred, constant questioning of thoughts and actions, an overwhelming need for reassurance

  • A loss of energy and motivation, that makes even the simplest tasks or decisions seem difficult

  • Loss or gain in weight

  • Difficulty with getting off to sleep, or an excessive desire to sleep

  • Loss of interest in sex

  • Finding it impossible to concentrate for any length of time, forgetfulness or a sense of unreality

Dr White from the Cripps Health Centre at Nottingham University points out the differences between a passing low mood and depression.

Use your common sense - if there's an obvious reason why you're feeling low, it'll pass in a day or two. It's normal if you've had flu or something like that to feel pretty down for a while. If your mood is persistently low for more than a couple of weeks then you may be developing a significant depression.

OK, So What if I Am Depressed?

The good news about depression is that it is treatable and there are various sources of help on most university campuses. Robin Dollery, head of the Nottingham University Counselling Centre says:

It's very ordinary. Most of us are going to feel depressed at some time in our life. That doesn't mean to say that you can just ignore it. It's ordinary, but you need to do something about it.

Most universities will have counselling centres, which provide free or low cost counselling for any student or staff member for as long as they need it. Counselling is becoming much more a part of every day life, and Robin stresses that you don't need to feel stigmatised about going there. He sums up what they can offer:

The counselling service is a friendly place who'll meet up with you initially to find out what's going on and to work out with you the best way of handling it.

Initial meetings with a counsellor are usually pretty quickly arranged. The counsellor and the student can then work out between them what's going to be the best way of handling this, which can be say, regular counselling, or a short burst of therapy, and/or medical intervention.

More than 70% of depressed people have been found to respond well to drug treatment, and doctors can certainly help or advise you on this option. Doctor White notes that:

Most of the people who come to see us don't actually need any treatment - they need an explanation of how they feel. We'd discuss treatment if we felt that it was appropriate, but in the end, the decision is the patient's. They can choose whether or not to take medication. We would rather see people who felt they had a problem and discuss it with them to get the right kind of support mechanism in place, than have people struggling on their own.

You could also try and see if there's any kind of self help or support groups for people with depression. A member of such a group comments that

... it was really helpful for me, just to meet up and hang out with other people who are also depressed. To know that they're going through the same thing, and can understand, without me having to explain what it's like, the days when I can't get out of bed. We all joked about the idea of a 'depression social', but I've made some great friends, and we've gone out and had a really good time too.

Self Help

Whether it's just having a low couple of days, or if depression has become an old friend, there are some things you can do to take care of yourself, and which might help lift your mood. Try some of the following, even if it's the last thing you feel like doing.

  • Try and maintain a routine as much as possible - get out of bed and get dressed, even if you don't feel you can make it into lectures.

  • Force yourself to do some kind of gentle exercise - even a walk up to the corner shop gets you some fresh air.

  • Expecting too much of yourself can often lead to depression - try aiming for simply 'good enough' rather than 'perfect'.

  • Make sure you're eating healthy foods: try getting some fresh fruit or vegetables into your daily diet, and limiting the amount of take aways. Your body needs food to get energy - not eating will only make you feel even more tired and low.

  • Don't drink, smoke or do drugs - alcohol is a depressant anyway, and will only make things worse.

  • Do - talk about it, let people know what's going on and how you're feeling.

Depression squashes the very faculties that you need to get out of it. It's like a vicious circle - you need to be able to feel confident and do things and have some energy to get out of it, but those are the very things that depression takes away. Sometimes you need a leg-up from somebody else. And that's where friends can help.

How to Help a Friend

So what if you think that one of your housemates, or friends is depressed? Well, telling them stuff like 'Pull yourself together', or 'It's not so bad' really isn't the best way to help. For them it is that bad, and if they could put themselves together, then they would. Here's a few suggestions that might be useful:

  • Try and listen - even if you've heard the same thing from them 1000 times.

  • Urge them to get help. Offer to make an appointment the counselling service. Go with them, or wait for them afterwards if necessary.

  • Educate yourself and learn more about depression. Websites like and can help.

  • Take care of yourself too - not only can you model helpful behaviours for your friend, like eating well, but it also stops you getting overloaded. Find someone to talk to if you need to as well. Depression can be contagious.

  • If you're getting frustrated, try and put yourself in their shoes - they probably feel just as bad about themselves as you do, if not worse.

  • Remember that what you see isn't the 'real' person - it's a person with an illness. Depression can impair someone's social skills, and make them withdrawn, and shy, or angry for no apparent reason. Don't take it personally.

  • The depressed person isn't 'lazy'. They're ill. Sometimes even mundane things like washing up, keeping the place tidy, let alone getting into lectures can seem like too much.

  • Do your best to accept them, and let them know that it's their illness you're frustrated with, not them.

Help Online

There are a fair number of websites and online counsellors around. These sites contain useful information and further links:

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