Depressed in College
There's a lot of good to be said about going to college. Besides the obvious opportunities for advanced education and the boost in your career potential, college gives you a fresh start with infinite possibilities. You have a whole new world to explore and enjoy. And you finally get a major dose of long-awaited freedom.
But the truth is that sometimes the college years can be really tough. You've left behind your established relationships, elements of self-confidence, and high school identity. And now you're expected to stand alone and be responsible, fun, cheerful, independent, smart, and studious.
Some college students manage these expectations just fine and get through school with a minimal amount of stress. But more and more students are finding the pressure and expectations difficult to handle, and many of those students deal with the uncertainty and stress with self-destructive coping mechanisms that compound their problems.
The most painful thing I experience as a clinician is witnessing the amount of suffering that students endure before seeking help. They often suffer alone, which compounds the problem. They don't want to burden parents or friends, and ironically that selfless desire increases their isolation, which worsens the problem. They haven't learned yet that sharing stress invites others to share their own stresses, solidifies connections, and provides opportunities for new perspectives and solutions.
I don't think I can explain this state of pain and confusion better than Kara did in the following article that she wrote to her college newspaper when she was in her first year of graduate school as a business student. (With permission, I've changed names to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.)
Being Depressed at UBS
I almost took my life three times during my first year at University Business School. And I was just as normal as you when I started here. I was really excited to come to UBS. The first month or two were filled with new friends, and great challenges. But then one day I noticed that I wasn't feeling like myself anymore. I didn't think much of it at the time, and it was no big deal.
Then it happened again. Soon I started to feel sad all of the time. I kept asking myself if I was really enjoying school here. Was everyone happy besides me? Why wasn't I having any fun?
Maybe it was because the weather had started to turn cold and gloomy.
Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the zillions of re cruiters calling me, when I was already confused about "what I wanted to do with the rest of my life." Maybe I was starting to get sick of seeing the same 80 people every single day, and that annoying guy in the corner who pointed his finger whenever he raised his hand. Whatever it was that began it all . . . everything else was just piling up and making it even worse.
I began to find myself crying myself to sleep. I didn't want to go out anymore. I stopped exercising, which only made me feel worse, both physically and emotionally. I started questioning everything I would say in class. I couldn't focus on what the professor was saying. I felt like every case I read was longer than War and Peace.
I started hating myself for ever applying to UBS. And then one day I just didn't get out of bed. I stayed in bed all day and just cried and cried.
Then a strange calmness came over me. "Everything would be all right if I just killed myself," I thought. "Then it would all go away." So I made my way to the bridge and stood there for nearly an hour. But I couldn't jump off.
The next three weeks were the worst weeks of my life. I would spend class periods thinking of how to kill myself, and how that was the real answer to all of my problems. I skipped class just because I didn't want to get out of bed. I went to the bridge two more times. I wasn't scared anymore. I was ready to die and I didn't care.
A friend saved me, without even realizing it. She thought I looked sad and suggested that I go see Dr. Pa tricia Miller, Director of MBA Program Support Services. That was the beginning of my road back to recovery.
Dr. Miller realized that I was severely depressed and she got me some help. I went and saw Dr. Nicholas Johnson, a psychiatrist at UBS. I didn't want to go at first. I was a UBS student, and I wasn't about to go see a shrink. God forbid if anyone ever found out. I was supposed to be strong"a winner. Winners don't go see psychiatrists or admit that they're depressed. I felt like a complete failure for going to see Dr. Johnson.
But he helped me realize that I wasn't. Every year the staff of the Mental Health Services Department sees about 140 UBS students. That's about 1 out of every 11 people. That's 7 people in your section alone. Not to mention the fact that there are many UBS students who go see outside providers without ever going through University Health Services.
I began to re-focus my life. Although I didn't feel comfortable telling any of my friends that I was struggling, I did tell my parents. They, along with Dr. Miller, would call or email me every day to cheer me up and encourage me. I began forcing myself to exercise no matter how bad I felt. I sought out tutoring from some second years. And I began taking anti-depressants. That was a very difficult hurdle to overcome. I thought that surely I must be a loser if I was so depressed that I had to use medication to get better. I was scared of the side effects and of the possibility that people might find out. But once again Dr. Johnson calmed my fears.
Although I don't know the exact numbers, I do know that you walk by someone every day that's using Zoloft or Prozac. You don't even know it. And do you know why? Because the medicines work; and no one can tell the difference. Not everyone has to take medicine, but if you do, it's nothing to be ashamed of or scared of. It simply means that you need a boost to get your positive brain waves going again.
Combining the medicine with daily exercise made all of the difference in the world. Within a month, I felt happy again from time to time. Within 2 months, I felt happy most of the time. Within 3 months, I was me again.
Why did I write this article you ask? Because I want you to know that it's okay to be depressed but it's not okay to stay depressed. That may sound stupid or simple to you if you feel fine. But it was exactly what I needed to hear when I wanted to end my life. I also want to remind you that it's okay to ask for help.
And I pray that you do. You ask questions in class all the time. Why should you feel any embarrassment about asking for help when the answers provided are a million times more important than any ones you'll ever hear in class?
I chose not to submit my name because this is a very private experience. However, it's not an unusual experience. It's all around you. Please take the time to look out for your friends and notice when they seem down.
But most of all, take care of yourself. UBS is an amazing place full of phenomenal people and fantastic experiences. The staff and faculty here want to help you make sure that you can benefit from every aspect of the UBS experience. You can only do this if you are healthy and happy.
Remember that I started out feeling fine too. Get help before you sink as low as I did. Your life and UBS are too precious to miss out on.
It took courage for Kara to write this article, but the results have been worth it. Every year the student newspaper runs this piece during National Depression Screening Week, and after it is printed, a number of students always come into the counseling center saying, "I have all the same symptoms that were in that letter but didn't put it all together."
I'm offering the following advice and tips to help you do three things: prevent, recognize, and deal with mental health problems so that they interfere as little as possible with these years and help you develop the tools you'll need to have a more fulfilling adult life.
For more information on college life, I recommend a wonderful book by Richard Light, Making the Most of College.* In this book, Light surveys students about their most important experiences in college and expands in great detail on several of the areas I briefly mention in this chapter.
*R. Light, Making the Most of College (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).
Above all else, I'd like you to remember these five things:
- Self-care is not the same as being selfish.
- Be honest with yourself about what you're feeling.
- Eat, sleep, and exercise.
- Stay connected to others.
- Think of proactive ways to address problems.
Good grades and impressive jobs don't mean anything if you feel miserable all the time. There are people"family, friends, peers, and counselors"who can help you, so reach out when you need to.
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