For many high school seniors, college is a beacon lighting their way to freedom. It is a time of excitement, new possibilities and unbridled independence.
Unfortunately, many high school seniors are surprised when college proves to be a larger challenge than they anticipated, academically, socially and/or psychologically. For a significant segment of these students, college is the first time they will experience a major depressive episode.
Timothy Petersen, PhD, a clinical and research psychologist with the Mood Disorders Program at Rhode Island Hospital, says, "18 to 24 is a very common age range for people to experience their first episode of depression. Major depressive disorder is one of the leading risk factors for suicide, and in America's college age population, suicide is the third leading cause of death, after accidents and homicides."
College students have a tendency to experience depression for a number of reasons, but there are factors that typically work together to cause or make depression worse.
For most students, college is the first experience living away from home, family and friends. When things become difficult, their support system (including family and friends) may be miles away and their surroundings unfamiliar. This may bring feelings of homesickness, loneliness and isolation.
Many students find college more academically demanding than they anticipated and feel stressed or anxious about not performing well. Petersen says, "Type A personalities, or perfectionists, are prone to these types of worries. They are often more likely to experience significant depressive symptoms because of negative self talk as a result of perceived failures."
Like any new life change, such as starting a job, college students have to negotiate an entirely new social network. Petersen says, "Teenagers spend years negotiating and establishing a social network in middle school and high school. All of a sudden, they are forced to do that all over again. These pressures can trigger or exacerbate symptoms of depression."
The added pressure of greater exposure to drugs and alcohol can also play a role. On college campuses, much of social life involves alcohol and/or drug use. For someone who is at risk for or already depressed, substance use may serve to exacerbate risk or symptoms and serve as a means to self-medicate and avoid his/her personal problems.
Sometimes students are not aware that they are experiencing a major depressive episode. Petersen says, "Occasional sadness is normal and a healthy amount of anxiety can be a good motivator. But when sadness and anxiety are interfering with daily life, such as negatively affecting relationships, dramatically altering sleeping and eating habits and lingering for more than a few weeks, it is probably time to seek help." Depressed students and/or those close to them should first seek treatment through on campus health services, and if necessary, seek treatment in the surrounding community. Upon enrollment, local crisis phone numbers should be made available to all students.
Petersen was the principal investigator of a study of America college students and their risk for major depressive disorder and suicide. The study was conducted at two major universities. Of over 600 students screened, approximately 16 percent reported having feelings that life was not worth living, and none of these students reported being currently engaged in mental health treatment.
Petersen says, "This number is significant. College campuses need to implement programs that more proactively identify students at risk for depression or are already depressed. A critical piece to this effort is linking students in need with treatments that have been empirically supported as effective. A commitment from the top levels of university infrastructure is paramount to help de-stigmatize mental health problems and treatment."
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