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33% College Students Show Early Signs of Depression: Are You One of Them?

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Savi Chakraborty

Depression is on the rise in college students.

Research shows that 1 in 5 college students are struggling with depression in college. According to the Centre for Collegiate Mental Health Annual Report, 2017, there has been an increase in “threat-to-self” characteristics among college students for the seventh year in a row.

College years are the equivalent of the wild west in one’s life. Students move from their protective homes to new cities, neighborhoods and unfamiliar surroundings. It’s also their introduction to the “real world” - one where they need to define their own identity and build their futures. College can be quite overwhelming for a lot of students and overtly liberating for others. The newfound freedom is tricky to handle. With unlimited exposure to technology and social networks, college students are more prone to a very complex tapestry of information abuse. This has amplified the existence of already existing evils of substance abuse and addictions - alcohol & drugs. We’re living in crazy times. If you’re a parent in this age, you’ll be spending sleepless nights over what all your kid can be exposed to in high school or in college. Since we cannot control this kind of exposure, we need to be mindfully aware of these stimuli so we know how to cope with depression in college.

The internet is abundant with articles on mental health awareness and treatments for depression in college students. In this article, we focus on some of the most common mental health issues and on what causes depression in college students. We use the insights from student mental health experts to offer ways on how to cope with depression in college.

Our Approach

We conducted a survey looking for early signs of depression among students aged between 18-24 years.

We discovered the depression rates in college students are:

About 32.7% reported having felt irreconcilable pangs of depression and anxiety for at least a couple of times within a fortnight, while 12% reported feeling them multiple times within the same time period. 

depression in college students

Our research on depression in college students led us to some very interesting discussions. In one such interview with Gregg Henriques, author of A New Unified Theory of Psychology and director of the Combined Clinical and School Psychology Doctoral Program at James Madison University, we discussed various aspects of depression in college students, factors that have led to a perceived increase in mental health issues and how both parents and educational institutions should take a holistic approach toward the mental health of this generation. High-tech devices, along with other lifestyle changes have affected the neurotic cluster, causing a big increase in stress and anxiety, that in turn affects depression.

In a world where educational institutions are becoming more and more tech savvy, it led us to ask: can we find a balance between wellness and the benefits of technology? Awareness and acknowledgment of the effects of technology has on mental health is critical. Colleges should be cognizant of these effects, create awareness around over usage and focus on the positive aspects of technology that can assist in taking education to futuristic levels. This level of awareness should also extend to the students' home.

As Mr. Henriques points out,

“I believe we should be focused on developing a holistic philosophy and healthy attitude towards life. Parents should foster an atmosphere of open conversations about negative feelings instead of avoiding them or ignoring them. Overprotection of children can lead to emotional immaturity and fragility that is a characteristic of this generation of millennials. Helping kids to learn how to “toughen up” might be a good thing in many cases. I emphasize the need to be mindful about negativity and be armed with tools that can help them cope with negative feelings and situations themselves, instead of having to rely on parents.”

In this article 

a) Depression Self-Assessment

b) Types Of Depression In College Students 

c) Coping With Depression in College: 20 Coping Mechanisms

d) 7  Ways To Support A Friend With Signs Of Depression And Anxiety 

Types of depression

Symptoms of Depression In College Students 

Types of depression in college students

1) Bipolar disorder 

Bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic, polarizing shifts in a person’s mood. Warning signs of bipolar disorder can start at age 25 on average, and sometimes even younger. In college students, depression or ongoing hormonal changes mixed with anxiety for a prolonged period of time can shift towards bipolar disorder by the time they graduate owing to the increasing pressures of career and jobs.

2) Seasonal affective disorder 

This tends to affect international college students who move from warmer Asian climates to colder North American and European countries. Seasonal affective disorder is characterized by the onset of depression during the winter months when there is less natural sunlight. 

3) Sleep-wake disorder 

Disturbed sleep causes fatigue, a decrease in energy levels and cognitive focus. The quality and quantity of sleep are both important. College students tend to neglect sleep over late night partying or cramming for exams, and this takes a toll on their overall mental health in the long run. 

4) Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity disorder

This behavior is characterized by different kinds of symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, lack of focus and organization, fidgety behavior, and impulsiveness. Students affected by ADHD find it hard to sit put in one place, attend an entire lecture or maintain their focus during a long three-hour exam.

5) Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

Panic disorder involves recurring panic attacks that can be sporadic as well as periodic. DSM-5 defines panic attacks as situations when you experience a surge in sudden fear that peaks and causes you physical discomfort. Panic attack symptoms include racing heart, shaking, sweating and vomiting in severe cases. 

6) Social Communication Disorder 

College students and millennials in general have reported increasing social communication disorders. Factors affecting and amplifying this disorder involve excessive dependence on social media, isolation from real-world activities, addiction to online gaming, etc. Students from different cultural backgrounds are at a higher risk as they find it hard to blend in with the crowd owing to language differences.

7) Substance-related and addictive disorders

Alcohol and drug abuse are concerning threats to college students. When they reach a legal drinking age and begin living away from home, students are faced with increasing peer pressure, societal norms and a culture of partying that can foster forms of substance abuse. The effects of substance abuse can be far more pernicious than any other disorders and even harder to cure. 

8) Post-traumatic stress disorder

PTSD can be of varying degrees depending on the intensity of the trauma and length of exposure to it. Post-traumatic stress disorder may result from one of the following situations: 

> First-hand exposure to a traumatic event – accident, death, molestation, shock, horror, etc. 

> Witness trauma happen to someone else 

> Exposed to photos/videos of traumatic incidents through media, television, social media

9) Anxiety disorders

Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder that goes unnoticed and untreated. It becomes a severe disorder when anxiety starts reeling you in a series of negative thoughts that affect your day to day functioning.  According to the American Psychological Association , anxiety is one of the top conditions affecting college students (41.6%). 

10) Eating disorders 

Eating disorders are more common in high school and college students owing to a lot of cultural appropriation, unrealistic beauty standards and exposure to media that puts creates undue pressure of fit a particular ‘look’. Two of the most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. 

Coping with depression in college: 20 coping mechanisms

Coping with depression

1) Take one day at a time

Overthinking and fear of the future are some of the more common thoughts that cripples people with depression. Let go of all negative thoughts of the future and take one day at a time. If you can go a single day doing what you're supposed to do, the future will take care of itself.

2) Set up a routine

Routines can be incredibly powerful in setting you on the right track. Set up your schedule to eat, sleep, work, exercise and push yourself to stick to it. It won’t be easy at times but accomplishing each task will give you a sense of accomplishment that’ll be a motivating factor for other tasks. For example, something as simple as waking up at 6 AM and making yourself breakfast by 8 AM can create an achievement.

3) Exercise

The benefits of exercise are well known. It’s hard to push yourself to get out and exercise when you are engulfed by darkness all around. But use a slight internal push to go out and get any form of exercise, even if it is for just 15-20 minutes a day. Research shows that even 20 minutes of exercise can make a profound difference to your physical and mental health.

4) Healthy diet

Student dealing with depression tend to gravitate towards overeating or undereating, or sometime just deprioritizing eating healthy all together. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is extremely important when you’re trying to deal with depression. Foods can have therapeutic impact on your mental health. Various studies in Nutritional psychiatry state that there’s an intrinsic connection between what you eat and how you feel, and ultimately behave. It’s important that you eat a balanced meal that feeds your body and comforts your soul. Therefore, crash diets or cutting out different food groups (re: gluten-free, vegan, lactose free, grain-free, keto, etc) is not recommended. A balanced, wholesome meal is all you need until you have some medical conditions/allergies  that require you to cut out some foods.

5) Comforting rituals

The Danish have ‘hygge’ and Americans have marshmallows by woodfire. Comforting rituals are a key part of well being and a healthy lifestyle. Create your own feel good rituals - something simple and yet personal. It could be a cup of coffee watching the sunrise, a long bath with epsom salts, a cup of lavender tea at bedtime, some soothing music or may be a walk in the park - whatever makes you feel at peace. Make it a part of your day, if possible include it mid-way through the afternoon.

6) Talk it out

Depression can cause a vicious cycle of thoughts that engulfs you like quicksand. Talk it out with a close friend or family member. Telling them your thoughts can make your heart feel lighter. It doesn’t have to be for hours, just make a quick call to let out what you feel and hear yourself speak. Talking it out is like disarming the monster - once you hear and see your thoughts clearly with the help of someone else, you'll be more equipped with coping with it. 

7) Write

Writing is a therapeutic practice for a lot of students dealing with depression. It gives you the freedom to open up completely knowing that it’s only for you to read. Maintain a journal or notes everyday, nothing down your emotions and cycle of thoughts. Writing helps in two ways - it adds to the list of activities that diverts you from checks your brain from plunging into the whirlpool of negative thoughts and secondly, it helps you reason with your thoughts as you write them out.

8) Read

Reading is a form of brain exercise. Students suffering from depression can use active reading to train their brain reinstate the feeling that they are not alone. Trying reading motivational books or stories of people who overcame depression to become their best selves.

9) Show up for yourself

Let’s face it. There will be tough days - really hard days when all you would want to do is hole up and hibernate. All your coping mechanisms become useless on such days. You may fail at completing a simple task. Just show up - remember you owe it to yourself and if no one can show up for you. You won’t want to work out - but just reach the gym and do like 10 minute stretches. Eating will feel like a task but ensure to just eat one healthy meal that day even if you binge on junk for the other meals.

10) Stay away from social media

Social media can have quite a detrimental affect on your mental health especially when you’re trying to deal with unhappy memories, a trauma or other depressive emotions. Get off social media - just cut it out. The false portrayal of perfect lives on social networks and the endless race to prove to the world that you’ve the best job, house, travel plans, fashion sense and so on and so forth benefits no one.

11) Practice resilience building

Building resilience is like training your glute muscles or learning to do a human flag. Grit and resilience are two important aspects of the infamously hard Navy seal training and it get them through their ‘week in hell’. Build resilience using the following steps as recommended by a former Navy seal himself:

Step 1 - Watch actively when a negative emotion begins to rise

Step 2: Observe the root of the emotion. Don’t avoid, deflect or ignore

Step 3: Find a positive counter to the negative element

Step 4: Amplify the focus on the positive element

These steps are easier said than done. But may be try one step at a time and complement it with other mechanisms from this list. For example, when you reach step 2, you can write down the negative thoughts even if you are not able to counter it with a positive thought right away. Just noting down the root of the emotion and the trigger that set it off can make your heart lighter. Get back to it later on and try to counter it with a positive thought.

12) Embrace the pain and face your fears

It may sound poetic and corny, but don’t run away from pain. Feel the intensity of your pain like a slow burning emotion. Embrace your tears and gloominess and let yourself sulk for as long as it takes. Blocking out emotions can lead to bottling up and volcanic outbursts. Assign yourself a timeslot to reel in pain and feel depressed. But know that, once that time slot is over, you’ll collect yourself and stand up on your feet.

13) Train your analytical reasoning

Most of our fears are a result of past-trauma or fear of the future. Be conscious about thinking analytically when such fears arise. Cognitive therapists aim to help patients train themselves with coping mechanism beyond medicines using the following steps:

> Identify thoughts and images that accompany and precede the negative thoughts

> Distance between themselves from the underlying beliefs of these thoughts

> Look to validate these thoughts - question actively if there’s any substance to these fears. If there are, then what are the solutions

> Identify a pattern in these thoughts and images that occur across different situations.

14) Know that you’re not alone

It might feel quite lonely out there but knowing that you’re not the only person going to such kind of feeling can be a huge solace. There are hundreds of students like you who feel similar or worse pressures about life, performance, careers, relationships and everything else. So let it sink in for a moment - you are not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 85% of college students reported that they felt overwhelmed by everything around.

15) Seek help

Look beyond the stigma of mental health. It’s like any other medical condition that needs expert help. It’s unfortunate that we live in a society where you are not ashamed of drinking alcohol to drown your sadness (potentially harming your body) but feel a pang of shame to ask for help when it comes to depression. Reach out to experts and resources on your campus. You’ll be surprised how curable depression is. Why suffer from a clinical condition when there is cure available at hand?

16) Be there for others with the same issues

Connecting back to the fact that you’re not alone in suffering from depression, show up for people who need support. It gives you a purpose beyond yourself and supporting someone who needs it also lets you put things into perspective.

17) Guided meditation and yoga

Meditation is like brain boot camp. It helps you clear your thoughts and focus. A combination of meditation and yoga is known to have tremendous benefits on your physical and mental health. Yoga balances your hormones, which in turn controls your mood cycles. Use apps such as Headspace to start your journey of guided meditation.

18) Practice gratitude

While focusing on everything that is wrong with our lives, we sometimes that the good things for granted. Take a couple of moments each day, preferably when you wake up or while going to bed, to express gratitude. Write down one thing you are grateful for everyday. May be it’s a tasty lunch that you had today, or the beautiful fall colors that you saw while walking down to work.

19) Get a minimum of 8 hours of daily sleep 

Sleep is more important than you can imagine. If you've trouble sleeping, this will take some time. But try and get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. It can help tremendously with calming your nervous system and making your mind feel more rested. 

20) Avoid caffeine if you are prone to anxiety 

Caffeine in aerated drinks, coffees and teas can be a booster of anxiety, especially during the later hours of the day. Avoid all forms of caffeine after lunch so that you aren't wide awake at night. 

Expert Opinion

We chatted with Chris McGrath, Vice President - Student Success, George Brown College on the reasons for depression in college students:

1) In your experience, what are the most common mental health issues that students face today? Are there any new factors that have been creating the commonly discussed 'mental health epidemic? 

One of the most common mental health issues for young people is not so much about mental health as a diagnosis, but in fact about understanding the range of health experiences that actually make up one’s overall mental health. Mental health is not solely a negative state of being, it’s also a positive state of health. Sometimes, college students find it challenging to reconcile a sense of themselves and understand the world around them. For many of them, the challenge can often then be about balancing the good days with the bad days, and the low moments with the high moments. At the heart of that challenge is having the resources to achieve that balance and still move forward with studies, work or other goals. Some people may put this in the context of helping students to become more resilient. Resilience for me and the work that we do with students is about helping them develop the internal resources to respond to negative stimuli, calibrate a different balance in order to maintain focus on their goals, and reaching out for help where needed. 

2) According to you, what are a few important ways that colleges/educational institutions should address the increasing mental health challenges among college students? 

I think one of the most important things that colleges and universities can do to better address mental health, and create a different perspective or paradigm around overall health and well-being, is to take a critical look at the structures policies and systems that man fact be barriers to, or causes of, distress or mental difficulty for students.

3) Can you speak to some of the initiatives that George Brown has implemented to support students? 

At George Brown College, we are constantly engaging our faculty in conversations and programs that help them understand the ways in which they can create emotionally safe classroom environments for students. Also, we are working on testing practices that minimize unnecessary stress and anxiety and introducing more inclusive design into teaching and learning practice.

One of the most impactful ways that we can change the common perspective on mental health is to engage students as peer coaches to work with one other in normalizing the good days and bad days. In this case, I’m not referring to peer counseling, but instead to peer coaches who create opportunities for students to engage in de-stressing activities, physical and recreational activity that release negative thoughts and feelings. 

George Brown College has also invested extensively in ensuring that our employees including staff and faculty, are well trained in identifying students who may be in a mental health crisis and facilitating their referrals to clinicians and counselors. 

7  Ways To Support A Friend With Signs of Depression and Anxiety  

Depression and anxiety support for a friend


Sometimes signs and symptoms of depression in college students can be obvious, but most of the times they're quite subtle. A tendency to withdraw socially, a sudden increase in irritability, disinterest in things they typically enjoy could be some signs. If you notice any of them, may be just reach out to ask if they would like to talk. Don’t impose but ask gently without making the person feel judged.

Be available if they reach out

Be available to hear them speak if they reach out to you proactively. Let them speak their hearts out. Just listen patiently. You don’t have a solution. Sometimes, all a person needs is someone to be able to talk to without being interrupted or interrogated.

Let them know they are not alone

Share any personal stories of struggle with sadness and grief. Make them aware that this is normal, it’s what a lot of people go through and come out of successfully.

Reassure them that they are loved

When the cycle of negative thoughts begin, people tend to forget that they have friends and family who love and care for them. Remind them of everyone who is out there, may be somewhere far, yet love them unconditionally. It could be parents, siblings or close friends.

Work with them to seek the right kind of clinical therapy

Finding the right treatment is crucial to recovery. Each person is different and their struggles will also be unique. It’s hard work finding the right kind of therapy, the psychologist who specializes in that field or simply building a schedule that works. Work with your friend to help them figure this out. Assist them to the clinic when they go for the first time or just check in regularly if they are on track with their treatment.

Engage them with new activities 

Depending on their personalities, take them out for new activities - outdoor sports, fitness class, movies or theatre, etc.

Encourage them to stay away from alcohol or drugs

If required, refrain from drinking with them around. Depression can increase dependence on alcohol or other drugs, and having social opportunities to drink can aggravate this further.

For more articles on college life, study guides, exam resources, connect with us on OneClass. 


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