By: BCD Staff
Depression is a serious and important issue on college campuses across the country. College students are susceptible to depression due to potential factors such as stress with school, work, or finances, or possibly feeling isolated after moving away from friends and family.
College students should know that depression is different from occasionally feeling sad or stressed. Depression is a serious but common and treatable medical illness. No one should suffer needlessly in silence. Check out this National Institute of Mental Health report on Depression and College Students for more useful information.
Symptoms of depression include: a depressed mood (feeling sad, empty, or hopeless); lack of interest or pleasure in activities that you used to enjoy; fluctuations in weight; difficulty with sleeping; low energy; feeling worthless; feeling guilty; difficulty concentrating; difficulty making decisions; feeling irritable; feeling restless; and/or feeling suicidal.
The symptoms of depression can can cause it to be difficult to function in day to day life, and as symptoms become increasingly unmanageable students may even begin to feel suicidal. Feeling suicidal needs to be addressed right away. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 15-34. Anyone who is feeling suicidal needs to know that this is a serious symptom of depression. You are not alone and you do not need to cope with suicidal feelings alone. With help you can get relief and feel better. If you are feeling suicidal please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK which offers free and confidential crisis support for suicide prevention 24/7.
Traditionally, when we think of trying to manage depression we think of engaging in therapy or taking medication. While those things are helpful, and are often recommended for anyone with clinical depression, there are many other things that can also be helpful that are sometimes overlooked. Additionally, there are many ways to deal with depression that have better long term outcomes (and lower relapse rates) than psychotherapy or medication alone. Many of the ten coping strategies listed here go hand in hand and can build on each other, incrementally increasing your overall sense of well being. For example, if you are exercising and eating well you will also likely be sleeping well. We hope this list will offer you effective strategies for dealing with depression in college.
Engage in Psychotherapy
No one should cope with depression alone. Trained and licensed mental health professionals can provide support in helping you to find relief from your symptoms. Psychotherapy can help individuals identify what issues are contributing to their symptoms of depression and how best to address these issues. As the American Psychological Association reports, psychotherapy can help reduce symptoms of depression and also prevent future episodes of depression.
There are many things to consider when choosing a therapist, The National Institute of Mental Health outlines several factors you might want to take into consideration ,such as the type of psychotherapy or specialties that the therapist offers. Additionally, research has shown that the relationship between the therapist and client is central to positive change in therapy. If you have been to therapy before and didn’t find it helpful, don’t assume that it can’t ever be helpful; it may be that the therapist was not a good fit for you.
Many college campuses provide on campus counseling centers for students to access at little to no cost. Therapists on college campuses will often have been hired for their ability to connect with and support college students. There are many reasons to access counseling services through your school. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) conducted a survey report on college students and mental health and found that one critical benefit of college counseling centers is that staff are able to coordinate with the school’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) if a student requires accommodations. If your depression, or any other mental health challenge is impacting your ability to engage in your studies successfully you can request special accommodations. We encourage you to begin your search for a therapist with your campus counseling center. Information about how to access your campuses counseling center should be available on your college or university’s website. If you would prefer to meet with a therapist or counselor off campus for any reason a good place to start your search is with the find a therapist tool run by Psychology Today .
Explore Medication Options
If you are experiencing symptoms of depression it is generally a good idea to talk with your primary care provider about this. Your doctor can help you rule out or treat any medical issues that may be contributing to symptoms of depression. Nurse practitioners, doctors, and psychiatrists can all prescribe medication to treat depression. After talking with you about your specific symptoms your medical provider may request that you try meeting with a mental health therapist before starting medication. However, sometimes psychotherapy is not enough for more severe forms of depression and you, your therapist, and your doctor may decide that medication would be helpful. Fortunately, advances in medicine have provided a number of medications that can be effective in treating depression. The Mayo Clinic outlines several common medications for treating depression.
Practice Mindfulness Exercises
Mindfulness can be defined as staying aware and conscious in the present moment. While it sounds simple, being mindful is not easy, it can take a great deal of practice to develop the ability to be conscious and connected in the present moment. College students may find themselves managing so many different commitments (classes, work, friends) at a time that they have a hard time staying focused without thinking about what they need to do next. And it can seem almost impossible to imagine staying in the present moment when managing frequent distractions on our ever present phones.
However, there is hope because there are many ways to go about learning about and practicing mindfulness exercises such as: meeting with a therapist who emphasizes mindfulness; going to a yoga class -some classes emphasize mindfulness more than others; reading about different mindfulness exercises and practicing them on your own; listening to audio mindfulness meditations; and attending a meditation class or retreat. As NPR reports, meditation is a mindfulness practice that has been shown to help people manage depression. There is a model of therapy called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy that an individual can engage in through working with a therapist but there are also countless mindfulness exercises that people can practice on their own at home.
The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that mindfulness-based therapies can be helpful in not only treating depression but also in reducing relapse rates among individuals diagnosed with depression. Another benefit of most mindfulness exercises is that you can practice them anywhere, anytime without anyone knowing, even in class or a crowded student union. So if you find yourself in a stressful situation or notice yourself experiencing one of the may cognitive symptoms of depression, something as quick and simple as a breathing exercise may be just what you need to get you back on track and through your day.
Spend Time in Nature
It may seem simplistic but spending time in nature has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. There is a model of therapy built around the philosophy that spending time in, and connecting with, nature will improve mental health. This is called ecotherapy , and is also known as green therapy, or nature therapy. There is lots of research to back up ecotherapy.
The benefits of spending time outdoors in nature have been looked at by researchers all over the world. In Japan there is a custom called forest bathing, which essentially means spending time around trees. As Quartz reports, “The Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well being.”
Even a 30 minute walk in a green setting has been shown to have an impact. Many college campuses are located in beautiful settings with easy access to walking or hiking trails. Finding time to sneak away even once a week could have a significant impact on your mental health. And if you are in school in a big city where you don’t get much connection to nature, it may be even more important for you to find time to make a trip to the country, the coast, or the mountains every once in awhile just to get a dose of what nature has to offer. An added benefit of spending time in nature is that usually while in nature people are doing some form of exercise, such as walking, hiking, running, skiing, or swimming which also helps reduce depression.
Exercise has countless physical health benefits such as strengthening your heart, lowering blood pressure, reducing body fat, and improving strength. Exercise has also been shown to have numerous mental health benefits including reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. College students can also benefit from the impact that exercise has on the brain including improved memory and thinking skills.
As WebMD explains, research has proven the benefits of exercise for treating mild to moderate depression but it is often under utilized. It may be hard as a college student experiencing depression to imagine finding the motivation or time to exercise. The good news is that colleges and universities often invest in recreational resources for students. Most colleges and universities offer campus recreation centers with gyms stocked with stationary bikes and treadmills as well as weight rooms, basketball courts, and swimming pools. Most colleges and universities also offer exercise classes and intramural sports that you can join. Your student fees are paying for these resources whether you use them or not, so why not check it out!
If getting to the gym feels like too much to start with, simply walking to class rather than taking the bus or driving could give you the emotional boost you need. Active reports that walking for 30 minutes three to four times a week can improve your mood, and that even “if a 20 minute power walk at lunchtime is all you manage, after six weeks it could be comparable to a course of psychotherapy”. When you exercise you produce endorphins which leads to increased feelings of well being. So it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you get your heart rate up.
Exercise can be anything that you enjoy doing, so if you don’t feel like hitting the gym or going for a run then call a friend and go for a walk or get a group of friends together for a round of disc golf or another group sport. Connecting with friends while walking or playing a game will take your mind off the exercise, and will give you the added benefit of social support.
Strengthen your Social Connections
Going to college often means moving away from friends and family and starting a new life in a new town or city and meeting all new people. This can be hard and overwhelming at first. Putting time and energy into meeting new people and developing friendships is important for your mental health.
The International Journal of Mental Health Systems found that social support minimized the effects of stress on depression for college students. Because stress can exacerbate symptoms of depression it is important to know that social connection can reduce the impact of stress. If you are feeling depressed it is likely that you may not be engaging in all the activities you once were. This can lead to isolation from family, friends, and other peer supports. Students Against Depression points out that “Depression thrives in conditions of social isolation and loneliness. Breaking this isolation and reaching out to others for support is a powerful way in which to fight depression.”
There are many ways that college students can strengthen their social connections such as: put together a study group for a class you enjoy or one you find really hard that stresses you out; set a time with your roommates for a weekly dinner date; join an on campus club or intramural sports team; and/or find an on campus organization that promotes community service and connect with others while giving back to the community. As a college student it can also be beneficial to think about how to stay connected with friends and family back home. Emails and phone calls with family and long time friends who you feel know you well can be uplifting. As an article in The Atlantic explains, being connected with friends can help ward off depression and help you recover from it. So even if it feels hard, in fact especially when it feels hard, reach out and connect with your friends.
Improve your Nutrition
Everyone knows that when you eat well you feel well. However, when you are in college, it can be hard to find the time to eat, let alone the time to shop for, prep, and cook healthy foods. But eating healthy doesn’t have to be hard or overwhelming. Even the simple act of trying to add more healthy nutrient rich foods into your diet will cancel out some of the other less helpful foods.
Simple snacks that don’t require any prep, and travel easily, like apples and almonds are the perfect to go snack for busy college students. And when you think about the time and energy that depression can take away from your life, it makes the decision to put the time into eating healthy food seem simple. When you are planning your meals, try incorporating these 10 healthy foods to beat depression . Even small choices like having oatmeal and green tea for breakfast can make a difference.
Sometimes nutritional deficiencies can contribute to symptoms of depression, so checking with your doctor to see if you should add any vitamins into your diet is always a good idea. As the Indian Journal of Psychiatry Reports in their study “Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illness, ” nutritional neuroscience is an emerging discipline shedding light on the fact that nutritional factors are intertwined with human cognition, behavior, and emotions. They go on to report that individuals experiencing depression are also not necessarily getting the carbohydrates, proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that they need. Your campus health center may even have a nutritionist, or a class on nutrition, to support you on your path to eating for health.
Improve your Sleep Habits
All of us have seen first hand how we suffer when we get behind on our sleep but there is research to back up this anecdotal evidence. The American Psychological Association (APA) explains why college students don’t get enough rest — reasons such as social commitments, stress, and trying to fit in time to study. However, sleep is critical to your mental health and learning how to prioritize and get good sleep is an important life skill.
If you are having difficulty sleeping check out these Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep .
Avoid Drug and Alcohol Use
Talking about alcohol use in college can be hard because it has become a big part of the culture. Drinking in college, even underage drinking, has become quite normative. It is important for college students to understand the potential negative health impacts of drug and alcohol use in college. Students who are experiencing symptoms of depression could benefit from avoiding drug and alcohol use.
Alcohol, substance abuse and depression often go hand in hand. Frequently people who are struggling with depression will turn to drugs or alcohol for help relaxing, getting their mind off things, having fun, or to forget about their troubles. Most colleges and universities are starting to recognize the negative impact that drug and alcohol use has on their students and their campus culture and are working hard to reduce substance abuse and provide support to students who are struggling.
The Harvard School of Public Health conducted a college alcohol study and found that “Alcohol use was highly prevalent among students reporting poor mental health/depression: 81.7 percent of them drink alcohol.” Unfortunately, over time substance abuse will only worsen the symptoms of depression. The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence outlines signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse.
If left untreated, drug and alcohol abuse can quickly escalate to the disease of addiction. If you are concerned about your use it is important to reach out for help right away. If you think you need help, have questions, or want referrals for support in your community contact the Hope Line 1-800-622-2255 or see the other crisis numbers listed below.
Set Healthy Boundaries
One symptom of depression is a feeling of worthlessness or excessive guilt. Sometimes when we feel worthless or guilty we have a hard time saying no, or setting boundaries in our best interest, because we are more worried about what the other person wants or needs than what we want or need. In college we might feel pressure to say yes to everything due to a sense of pressure to “enjoy every moment” or “seize the day.” We may feel we need to say yes to every study group, every party, or every time a friend asks us for help with something. However, this approach can backfire. In an effort to try to enjoy and do everything, we may be left unable to enjoy or do anything.
Setting good boundaries is like setting good goals. We recognize that we can only do so much and so we make a conscious effort to try to commit to the things that fill us up and bring us joy. This may mean choosing to go for a long run and then to bed early over going to a party that your friend really wants you to go to with her. It can be hard to disappoint people by saying no or setting a boundary especially if we already feel inexplicably worthless or guilty. However, many people find that when they push themselves to say no or set a boundary, even though it feels hard in the moment, they experience a boost in self-esteem and feelings of self-worth after doing so. Check out 10 Guilt-Free Strategies for Saying No and 10 Ways to Build and Preserve Better Boundaries for tips and strategies for saying no and setting boundaries.
We hope you have found this list of how to deal with depression in college helpful. Please remember that depression is a common and treatable mental health condition. You do not have to cope with this alone. If you or someone you know is in crisis please reach out for help immediately. These crisis support hotlines are free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day seven days a week.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline : 1-800-273-TALK.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free and confidential crisis support for suicide prevention 24/7.
- National Helpline : 1-800-662-HELP.
The National Helpline offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is available 24/7. This confidential and free helpline offers information (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families seeking information on treatment options for mental health and substance use disorders.
For more information on depression and other common mental health conditions experienced by college students see The Top 10 Mental Health Challenges Facing College Students Today .
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