College depression: What parents need to know

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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?

College depression isn't a clinical diagnosis. Instead, college depression is a form of an adjustment disorder — a type of stress-related mental illness — or depression.

College students face many challenges, pressures and anxieties that can cause them to feel overwhelmed. They may be living on their own for the first time and feeling homesick. They may also be adapting to a new schedule and workload, adjusting to life with roommates, and figuring out how to belong. Dealing with these changes during the transition from adolescence to adulthood can trigger or unmask so-called college depression in some young adults.

What are the impacts of college depression?

College students dealing with depression are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and perform poorly in school than are their peers. Difficulty concentrating may cause a young adult to have trouble finishing schoolwork, skip classes, lose interest in extracurricular activities or even drop out.

What are the signs that a student is dealing with college depression?

Signs and symptoms that a student may be experiencing college depression include:

  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Irritability, frustration, agitation or restlessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
  • Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Trouble with thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide

Typically, signs and symptoms of an adjustment disorder begin within three months of a stressful life event, such as going away to school. Depression, however, may occur at any time.

What should I do if I suspect my child is experiencing college depression?

College students may have difficulty seeking help for depression out of embarrassment or fear of not fitting in. Signs and symptoms also may be more difficult to notice from afar. If you suspect that your child is dealing with college depression, talk to him or her about what's going on and ask him or her to make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. Many colleges offer counseling services that also might be helpful.

Remember, depression symptoms may not get better on their own — and depression may 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 also increase the likelihood of substance abuse and the risk of suicide.

How can I help my child cope with college depression?

In addition to seeking treatment, encourage your child to take other steps to cope with college depression. For example:

  • Plan ahead. Encourage your child to take time each day to set priorities and goals. This will help your child develop a sense of control and confidence. It will also help him or her avoid putting off important class work until late at night, which can lead to fatigue.
  • Participate in activities. Playing a sport or joining a club can help your child meet people with similar interests, as well as provide a change of pace from schoolwork.
  • Seek support from friends. Encourage your child to get to know people in his or her dorm and classes. Friends can help your child feel more comfortable in a new environment.
  • Try to relax. Your child may be able to reduce his or her stress level through physical activity, meditation, deep-breathing exercises, long walks or other calming activities.
  • Set aside alone time. Spending time alone can help your child re-energize and feel a sense of control over his or her life.

How can I help prevent college depression?

There's no sure way to prevent college depression. However, helping your child become accustomed to his or her college campus before the start of the school year can prevent your child from feeling overwhelmed by the transition. Encourage your child to visit the campus and talk to other students, peer counselors or faculty about what to expect and where to turn for support. If your college-bound child has a history of depression, talk to your child's doctor about what kind of counseling options might best help your child with the transition to college. In addition, help your child become familiar with campus counseling resources. Remember, getting treatment at the earliest sign of a problem can help prevent college depression from worsening.

Last Updated: 2010-10-15
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