College depression: What parents need to know
Helping your child make the emotional transition to college can be a major undertaking. Know how to identify whether your child is having trouble dealing with this new stage of life — and what you can do to help.
What is college depression, and why are college students vulnerable to it?
Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. College depression isn't a clinical diagnosis. Instead, college depression is depression that begins during college.
College students face challenges, pressures and anxieties that can cause them to feel overwhelmed. They might be living on their own for the first time and feeling homesick. They're adapting to new schedules and workloads, adjusting to life with roommates, and figuring out how to belong. Money and intimate relationships also can serve as major sources of stress. Dealing with these changes during the transition from adolescence to adulthood can trigger or unmask depression during college in some young adults.
What are the signs that a student is dealing with college depression?
Many college students occasionally feel sad or anxious, but these emotions pass within a few days. In contrast, depression affects how a person feels, thinks and behaves and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems.
Signs and symptoms that a student might be experiencing depression during college include:
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as hobbies or sports
- Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
- Changes in appetite — often reduced appetite and weight loss, but increased cravings for food and weight gain in some people
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures, or blaming yourself for things that aren't your responsibility
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or suicide
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
Your child might also start having academic problems not consistent with her or her previous performance.
What should I do if I suspect my child is experiencing college depression?
Signs and symptoms of depression might be difficult to notice if your child isn't living at home. College students also might have difficulty seeking help for depression out of embarrassment or fear of not fitting in.
If you suspect that your child might be dealing with depression, talk to him or her about what's going on and listen. Encourage your child to share his or her feelings. Also, ask him or her to make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. Many colleges offer mental health services.
Remember, depression symptoms might not get better on their own — and depression might get worse if it isn't treated. Untreated depression can lead to other mental and physical health issues or problems in other areas of life. Feelings of depression can get in the way of your child's academic success. They can also increase the likelihood of high-risk behaviors, such as binge drinking, other substance abuse, and having unsafe sex, and increase the risk of suicide.
How can I help my child cope with depression during college?
In addition to seeking treatment, your child can take steps to feel better. For example, encourage him or her to:
- Take it one step at a time. Encourage your child to avoid doing too many things at once. Instead, break up large tasks into small ones.
- Care for himself or herself. Urge your child to get daily exercise, eat well, spend time in nature, get enough sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs. Use of alcohol and drugs is a poor way to cope with stress. Keep in mind that when people abuse alcohol and drugs, depression can develop. Using stimulants to stay up and study also can lead to mood changes.
- Seek support. Encourage your child to spend time with supportive family members and friends or seek out student support groups.
- Have fun. Encourage your child to go out with friends and try to have fun. He or she might be surprised to find enjoyment.
How can I help prevent college depression?
There's no sure way to prevent depression during college. However, helping your child become accustomed to his or her college campus before the start of the school year might prevent your child from feeling overwhelmed by the transition. Encourage your child to visit the campus and talk to students, peer counselors or faculty about what to expect and where to turn for support.
If your college-bound child has risk factors for or a history of depression, make sure he or she takes the disorder into consideration when applying to colleges. Talk about whether choosing a college close to home or a small college might make the transition easier. In addition, help your child become familiar with campus counseling resources. If necessary, consider finding a doctor or therapist closer to campus to provide therapy or monitor medication. Once at college, keeping a short, daily record of key symptoms might help your child recognize if his or her symptoms are getting worse.
Remember, getting treatment at the earliest sign of a problem can relieve symptoms and help students succeed in college.