The Promise of College and the Pitfalls of Depression

by Stephanie Dodaro

Every fall, millions of young adults leave home to attend college. While college offers many exciting opportunities for learning and growth, the transition to independence and collegiate life can also feel overwhelming.

At college, young adults learn to fend for themselves as they navigate an entirely new environment, all while continuing to form interests, personalities, and values. Before even setting foot on campus, they must decide where to live and which classes to take. Those who don’t have full funding from parents or guardians must figure out how to support themselves, and pay for the ever-rising cost of education and housing.

lonely woman misses her children

College courses may be more demanding and high-achieving students may have to adjust to no longer being at the head of the class. Some may feel financial or familial pressure to choose careers that aren’t a good fit for them. Along the way, students must also learn how to budget, keep house and manage their time, as well as develop interpersonal skills, such as making new friends and negotiating with roommates, professors, and landlords. It’s a lot for young people to do at once, especially without the academic or emotional support that they may have relied on at home.

To complicate young adults’ ability to cope with this transition, research shows that the brain is not fully developed until age 25. During the college years, the pre-frontal cortex, which governs many executive functions including risk management and planning, is still maturing. The brain is also still in the process of insulating nerve fibers and pruning rarely used synapses to increase efficiency. As a result, 18-year-olds may find it difficult to weigh choices, make positive decisions, and set and achieve goals.

Because young adults are developing life skills while their minds are still physically maturing, navigating through early adulthood is akin to building a plane while flying it.

After the initial excitement of the move has worn off, or midterm test scores come in, students may begin to feel the pressures of adulthood and college and experience trouble adjusting. They may become frustrated, lonely, or miss their friends and family back home. Some may experience serious stress, which can trigger depressive episodes or worsen symptoms for those with ongoing major depression.

If you’re a young adult in college, it’s normal to sometimes feel discouraged, isolated, or intimidated. However, if you have experienced any of the following symptoms for more than two weeks, you may be having a depressive episode.

  • Have little interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Feel down or hopeless
  • Experience constant anxiety
  • Have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much
  • Feel tired or having little energy
  • Have poor appetite or overeat
  • Feel worthless, telling yourself that you’re a failure or have let yourself or your family down
  • Have trouble concentrating on activities, such as reading the newspaper or watching television
  • Move or speak so slowly that other people notice. Or being so fidgety or restless that you move around a lot more than usual
  • Have thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself

What’s it like to experience depression day-to-day? When you’re depressed, your mind is constantly overstimulated with negative self-talk, which can stunt your confidence, cloud your ability to accurately weigh consequences, and make it tough to make good choices or learn from mistakes. Even seemingly simple decisions, such as what to make for dinner or where to cross the street, can become agonizing.

It’s common to attempt to reason your way out of depressive thinking, or use meditative techniques to try and correct it. However, while your environment can trigger depression, because this illness results from a chemical imbalance, the ability to overcome it is not a matter of intelligence and the destructive thoughts that accompany it can’t be reasoned away.

Eventually, you may hold yourself back from participating in social or academic pursuits, or find yourself unable to make choices, which further erode your confidence. This cycle of negative thought reinforcement can also leave you feeling fatigued, reduce your appetite, and affect your sleep.

For depressed young adults who didn’t have a supportive or stable home life, and don’t have good behavioral models to reference, it can be even more difficult to tell what behavior is normal and when to seek help.

Those who have experienced symptoms for most of their lives may not know or remember that it’s possible to feel better. A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that the median age of onset for mood disorders, including depression, is 13. (Behavioral disorders and anxiety can appear even earlier.)

In spite of the relatively early onset of depression, it takes an average of 6.3 years until treatment is sought. Unlike those with diseases like diabetes or asthma, people with depression don’t necessarily display outward symptoms and their conditions can go unrecognized, by themselves or others, for years. They may not seek help due to stigma, inadequate mental health resources, or lack of energy due to depression.

If you think you may be experiencing depression, know that you are not alone and you can and deserve to get relief from your symptoms. Please visit your doctor, student health center, or city clinic for assistance.

Your health care provider may recommend attending a support group or seeing a psychologist for counseling sessions. If you are experiencing more debilitating or longstanding symptoms, you may also be referred to a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs for short- or long-term use.

 

Patients also have the option of TMS therapy, a non-invasive outpatient treatment that uses magnetic energy to stimulate brain receptors and relieve major depression. Approved by the FDA in 2008, TMS is effective in twice as many patients as antidepressants, with far fewer side effects.

Especially if you’re going through secondary services, it may take some time and effort to get appointments, find a doctor that you feel comfortable with, and figure out which remedy works for you. Although it’s difficult to negotiate this process when you’re in pain, it’s important to be persistent and remember that you can feel better.

The adjustment to college and adulthood doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a few semesters. If you’re prone to mental illness, the pressures of the transition can trigger or worsen depression. Fortunately there are many treatment options that can relieve your symptoms and help you enjoy life.