College Depression: Why It Occurs & How to Deal With It
| Last Updated December 21, 2023
College depression is a widespread problem. In fact, some mental health experts believe that it's on the rise. At any given time, thousands upon thousands of college and university students feel so sad, anxious, lonely, isolated, or overwhelmed that they have trouble functioning in their day-to-day lives.
Those types of intense feelings, especially when they persist for a long time, can have serious consequences. Being depressed in college can sometimes lead to getting lower grades, missing out on big social opportunities, experiencing physical health problems, or engaging in risky behavior such as unsafe sex, drug abuse, or binge drinking. For a clinically depressed (and untreated) college student, suicide is another potential outcome.
So if you're having a hard time dealing with depression in college, then it's important to seek help right away. You don't have to face the challenge by yourself. It's true that you might feel embarrassed or afraid of how others will perceive you if you seek help. That's normal. But it's vital to understand that doctors and counselors are dedicated to maintaining your privacy. Plus, many other college students like you are experiencing the same thing. It is nothing to be ashamed of.
Take comfort in knowing that you're not alone. Explore the facts. Learn about the symptoms of depression, the warning signs of suicide, and why college is depressing for so many students. Then, check out 13 tips for how to deal with depression in college. If, at any time, you are in crisis or have suicidal thoughts, call 988 (Suicide & Crisis Lifeline) right away.
Things may feel dark right now. It may seem as if life has lost its color. But those conditions are only temporary. You can make it through this tunnel and back into the light. Be easy on yourself.
College Depression Facts
When it comes to measuring the rates of depression in college students, statistics vary. But what seems clear is that serious mental health issues play a major role in many students' lives. In fact, it's been found that the traditional college ages of 18 to 25 are when mental health problems first start to appear in a lot of people. In one survey of American college and university freshmen, over 12 percent of students said that they frequently felt depressed.
In another annual survey of college and university students in the U.S.—this one by the American College Health Association (ACHA)—20 percent of them said that they had been diagnosed with, or treated for, depression during the past year. More than 45 percent of them said that they felt so depressed that it was hard to function. And about 13 percent of them had seriously considered suicide.
Plus, in addition to those college depression statistics, the same ACHA survey also revealed high rates of feelings that, if persistent, often lead to serious mental health problems. For example, look at how many students experienced the following emotions:
- Feeling overwhelmed: 87.4 percent
- Intense sadness: 70.8 percent
- Overwhelming anxiety: 65.7 percent
- Intense loneliness: 65.6 percent
- Hopelessness: 55.9 percent
- Overwhelming anger: 43.3 percent
College Suicide Rates
Sadly, feeling depressed in college leads some students to commit suicide. Currently, however, it's impossible to know which post-secondary institution has the highest suicide rate. College and university policies vary greatly when it comes to tracking and reporting student deaths. And since college suicides are usually treated by investigators as criminal matters, information about them is often hard to come by. In many cases, even colleges and universities are left in the dark about the exact details of what happened to their students.
That's why most rankings that purport to show the highest college suicide rates are questionable at best. Nobody really has access to officially verified data about suicides at every single school in the U.S. In part, that's because no government agency currently collects such comprehensive data.
However, based on various surveys and research estimates, it is possible to get an overall sense of the frequency of suicides and suicidal thoughts among college students. For example, look at the following college suicide statistics:
- In a 2020 survey, over 12% of college students reported experiencing suicidal ideation, according to findings reported on PubMed (NCBI, 2020).
- Suicide is a leading cause of death in young adults, including those in college, according to CDC data from 2020. This same article indicates that students who experience depression or anxiety may face a higher likelihood of contemplating or engaging in suicidal actions.
- As part of a 2017-2018 survey by Penn State University among college students who have received mental health services, about 36 percent of them said that they have had serious suicidal thoughts during their lifetimes. That was a significant rise from 2010-2011 when about 24 percent of them said the same thing.
College Depression Symptoms
You wouldn't be the first person to say, "College makes me depressed." And you won't be the last. But how do you know whether or not you truly have depression? What are the typical signs of depression in college students?
For starters, only your doctor or a qualified mental health professional can make a clinical diagnosis of depression. So it is best not to try and diagnose yourself. That said, you can take a college depression test and get a good idea of whether your symptoms match the common criteria. Generally speaking, your symptoms must last more than just a few days and interfere with at least some of your normal activities in order to be considered depression. Some of the most common signs of being depressed include:
- Persistently feeling sad, empty, anxious, or unhappy
- Feeling pessimistic or hopeless
- Experiencing changes to your weight and/or appetite
- Having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Losing interest in hobbies or other activities that you normally enjoy
- Frequently feeling annoyed, frustrated, or restless—even over small issues
- Feeling guilty or worthless
- Doing everything more slowly
- Having trouble making decisions
- Being more easily distracted
- Being more prone to outbursts of anger
- Feeling excessively tired or weak
- Being obsessed with your past failures
- Having difficulty remembering things
- Experiencing pain, headaches, or other physical problems that you can't explain
- Crying without an apparent reason
- Frequently thinking about death, dying, and harming yourself
Even if you are depressed, you might only experience a few of the symptoms listed above. Or you might experience several of them, perhaps all at once or at different times. Regardless of your specific symptoms, it is crucial that you seek help and start learning how to deal with your depression as soon as possible.
The Warning Signs of Suicide
Obviously, there is a strong link between college depression and suicide. But how do you know when depressed students are actually in danger of killing themselves? How do you know when you might be in danger of doing that yourself?
All kinds of warning signs exist for suicide. Among college students who are depressed, some of the most important signs to watch for include:
- Having conversations about death and wanting to die
- Talking about not having any reasons to live or feeling like a burden on other people
- Discussing feelings of hopelessness, overwhelming pain, or a sense of being trapped
- A significant rise in reckless behavior such as the irresponsible use of drugs and alcohol
- Giving cherished personal belongings away
- Becoming increasingly nervous, isolated, and withdrawn
- Researching ways to commit suicide
- Buying a gun or other items that could be lethal
- Displaying rage, aggressive behavior, or severe mood swings
- Suddenly displaying uncharacteristic joy or calm
- Being unwilling to seek help
Many college suicide stories point to additional risk factors. For instance, some students who kill themselves have a family history of suicide, mental disorders, or child abuse. Other students have experienced major academic, financial, or relationship losses.
Regardless of a student's academic status or social popularity in college, suicidal thoughts and behaviors are cause for alarm. Immediate action should always be taken to help prevent the worst possible outcome. Thankfully, that help is easy to find. Call a national hotline such as 988 (Suicide & Crisis Lifeline) right away if you or somebody you know is contemplating suicide.
Why College Is Depressing for So Many Students
For students who are transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, college is often full of new and unexpected challenges. Even students who seem to have it all together can fall victim to mental health problems as they begin to navigate this new phase of their lives. Besides, a big change can make almost anybody more vulnerable to anxiety or depression. And college frequently involves some of the biggest changes of all.
Students who are new to college or university often need to adapt to a different way of life. For example, they may have roommates and a completely different schedule from what they are used to. Their classes may be more challenging than before. They might be responsible for their own finances for the very first time. And almost everyone around them is somebody they have never met.
So it's no wonder that a lot of students feel overwhelmed, especially during their first years of college. It's a time in their lives when they're finding out where they belong all over again. They are exploring and reshaping their identities. As a result, they sometimes feel homesick and disoriented. They may not get enough sleep or eat regular meals. And they may lose confidence in their abilities—both social and academic.
Plus, many college students try to live up to other people's high expectations. For example, they might be afraid of disappointing so-called "helicopter parents" who micromanage their lives, expect perfection, and push them toward classes and activities that they have no real interest in. As a matter of fact, a growing body of research now links helicopter parenting with college depression. After all, how can a student be expected to successfully handle so many new challenges if they have never been given the freedom to make mistakes or control their own life?
Or consider the potential impacts of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which frequently offer false or distorted views of other people's lives. Many college students primarily post photos and status updates that show them having fun, looking beautiful, and capitalizing on their smarts or popularity. But they tend to minimize their struggles or even keep them hidden. The goal seems to be an appearance of effortless perfection. As a result, it's easy to become a depressed college student when you spend a lot of time on social media and only ever see other students' expressions of happiness and self-confidence. You may start to wonder if something is wrong with you.
And, of course, intimate relationships in college can play a big role in students' mental health. Relationship conflicts and breakups are common on college and university campuses, especially since many students are experimenting with new identities and trying to find out where they fit in. They are often confused about their feelings and don't want to make commitments that may prevent them from exploring new aspects of their personalities.
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13 Tips for Preventing or Dealing With Depression in College
Depression can take over a student's life unexpectedly. It can happen to anyone. So it's essential to remember that being depressed is nothing to be embarrassed about. Everyone has struggles. Few, if any, human beings are able to get through life without experiencing some dark or emotionally challenging times once in a while. It's a normal part of being alive, just like getting physically sick from time to time.
That said, depression should always be taken seriously. It can be treated. And, even though it can't always be prevented, there are things you can do to decrease your odds of becoming depressed in college and to cope with the illness when you have it. For example, consider the following tips:
1. Get to know your school really well before starting classes
Most colleges and universities offer orientation days to help students adapt to their new surroundings. And it can often be beneficial to attend them. But formal orientations can also present an overwhelming amount of new information within a very short time. That's why, for an incoming college freshman, depression is often a real possibility within their first year of school. A quick orientation can actually leave a student feeling disoriented and unfamiliar with many important aspects of a school.
As a result, it is often helpful to organize your own orientation well ahead of time in order to become familiar with your school at a pace that feels comfortable. Visit the campus multiple times so that you fully understand its layout and features. Find existing students and faculty members to talk to. Get a feel for where students like to hang out and what activities are popular. And figure out where the school's counselors are located and whether they have any special advice to offer related to preparing for your upcoming college experience.
2. Reflect on who you are right now
When was the last time you really thought about what makes you you? Put aside all of the labels that other people have given you. Instead, dig deeper—within yourself. Write down everything about yourself that makes you proud, including your values, personality traits, and achievements. And think about the things that give you joy, make you sad, or cause you anger or frustration. Be honest.
All of those things are clues to who you are at this moment. When you identify them, you stand a better chance of staying grounded and confident going forward. (It's always easier to go through changes when you are sure about where you're starting from.) Plus, knowing more about yourself in this way can help you recognize areas where you might trip up or need a little extra support or guidance.
3. Don't ignore your troubling feelings
When you're busy going to class, completing assignments, and tackling other day-to-day activities, it's easy to turn a blind eye to confusing feelings. But even if you're having trouble explaining exactly what you are feeling (and why), it's important to pay attention. Don't minimize what you are experiencing or let your feelings become more and more intense while trying to pretend that they aren't there.
Admit to yourself that you are feeling something unusual. Make a commitment to pay closer attention to what might be triggering those feelings. That way, you lower the odds of depression sneaking up on you. And even if you already have depression, you may catch it at an earlier stage when it can be more easily treated.
4. Get professional help right away
This is the most important step. When it comes to dealing with college depression, help from professionals is essential. If you think that you might be depressed, then talk to one of your school's mental health counselors. Or make an appointment with your doctor. (Go to a walk-in medical clinic if you don't currently have a family doctor nearby.)
Every day that you wait to get help is a day when your depression might get worse. And it is a mistake to believe that you can deal with depression all by yourself. For many people, the symptoms of depression don't go way unless they receive professional treatment.
Immediate help is especially critical if you are having suicidal thoughts. If you are thinking about suicide, then call 988 (Suicide & Crisis Lifeline) right away. Every call is free and confidential. You can also call 911 for immediate help if you are about to attempt suicide.
Being diagnosed with clinical depression usually leads to a treatment combination of medication and talk therapy. The earlier you begin treatment, the faster your recovery is likely to be.
5. Take charge of your recovery
Overcoming depression is usually easier when you feel empowered. That's why it is important to take ownership of your diagnosis while playing an active role in the process of getting better. When you aren't relying solely on other people to make you better, you can take larger steps toward imagining a positive future.
As Anne Lamott says in her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair:
"It can be healthy to hate what life has given you, and to insist on being a big mess for a while. This takes great courage. But then, at some point, the better of two choices is to get back up on your feet and live again."
6. Explore all of the resources that are available to you
Your college or university may offer a variety of helpful services or be able to point you in the direction of good outside resources. If not, check out the websites of organizations that have researched depression among college students and that offer useful advice. For example, it might be worth checking out organizations and initiatives such as:
- The University of Michigan Depression Center
- The Jed Foundation
- The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- The National Institute of Mental Health
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
7. Get support from friends and family
It's always helpful to have people in your life who will listen and offer encouragement. So, even if you are attending college far away from home, try to stay in touch with any supportive family members or friends who already know you well. Those bonds are important. Video chatting over Skype or Facebook is often a good way to do that. Try to set up regular times when you are both available and can share how you've been feeling.
And don't overlook the potential support that might come from new friendships. By learning how to make friends in college, you can start building a network of support that helps you feel more connected to the world.
8. Learn from other college students who've been depressed
Nobody understands what you may be experiencing better than someone who has been through the same thing. Countless other college students have had to cope with anxiety and depression. You can learn from their experiences and discover how they were able to recover.
Ask your school's counselors if they know of any local depression survivors who regularly share their stories or advocate for better treatments and services. Or explore college depression stories online.
9. Take everything just a step at a time
You didn't become depressed overnight, and you won't recover overnight either. Unless you keep things simple, you run the risk of becoming overwhelmed by the bigger picture. So try to take each new challenge as it comes without looking too far ahead or making too many big changes all at once.
As Anne Lamott writes in Stitches:
"We live stitch by stitch, when we're lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we'd pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if, on the inside, our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears."
10. Start developing positive habits
It should go without saying, but abusing drugs or alcohol can slow down your recovery or kill it altogether. Why place more obstacles in your way? By the same token, it is vital that you establish a good sleeping routine and eat healthy, regular meals. That means not staying up all night to study, party, or watch Netflix. It also means avoiding sugary or convenient junk foods that don't nourish your brain.
Exercising on a daily basis has also been shown to help some people with depression. Moderate to strenuous physical activity releases chemicals in your brain (known as endorphins) that produce positive feelings. And the effect is frequently even better if you can spend part of your time outdoors under sunny skies or in a park or natural area.
11. Get out and get involved
When you have depression, college can feel like something that you need to escape from. It's why many depressed students become hermits and rarely go out, other than for classes or basic needs. But engaging in activities with other people can sometimes be a good way to give yourself a break from your darker feelings. And so can exploring a creative hobby outside of your place of residence.
Consider volunteering as a way to get out and experience the positive rewards of helping people. Join a club at your school that aligns with your interests. Begin a small study group. Start drawing, painting, writing, or creating music outside or in a place where you feel free to express yourself. Or simply find a few people to dance with.
12. Be kind to yourself
Try to avoid turning every small mistake or disappointment into a major failure. Remember that nobody is perfect and nobody ever will be. Heck, some of our best learning happens when things don't meet our expectations or go as planned. It's OK to forgive yourself and move on. In fact, it's the healthiest thing to do.
Even after college, depression can rear its ugly head and force us to confront the way we treat ourselves. So start developing the habit of being patient with yourself and accepting that setbacks may happen sometimes in spite of your best efforts.
13. Consider trying a different type of school
Some students just aren't well-suited for the environment of a traditional college or university, especially if they have to live on campus. That's why it can be worth checking out alternative options for your post-secondary education. In some cases, depressed college and university students are able to recover faster—and even start thriving—by changing to schools that enable them to learn in a different way.
For example, most trade schools and vocational colleges offer convenient programs that include a lot of practical hands-on training and small class sizes. Their programs also tend to be more structured and streamlined. As a result, such schools often remove a lot of the guesswork and social pressures that many students encounter on traditional college and university campuses.
Give Yourself Permission to Seek Help
Whether you are already experiencing college depression or feel like you're on the verge of it, remember that you don't need to battle it alone. Help is available. And you probably have many more options than you realize. With professional support, you can get back on the path to feeling good.
Plus, keep in mind that you may not necessarily need to complete your education at a traditional college or university. Many vocational colleges and technical schools are worth considering if you eventually determine that you need a change. And they are often easy to find. For instance, the tool below lets you search for options by using your zip code.