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This guide helps to identify the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues for college students and where and when to seek help. Left untreated, these issues can become debilitating for students, so whether you feel you are experiencing these issues or find yourself concerned for a friend or peer, it is important to take action now.

Research conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness on mental health on college campuses shows that:

  • One in four students have a diagnosable illness
  • 40% do not seek help
  • 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities
  • 50% have been so anxious they struggled in school

While there are certainly growing concerns over other mental health issues affecting college students today, this article covers the prevalent issues of depression, anxiety, suicide, eating disorders and addiction. Our guide is not a substitute for treatment, but it will help you find resources that lead to a happier and healthier college career.

Please note that in any situation, it may be difficult for you to approach a friend regarding these illnesses. People do not like to be told when they are sick, what they are feeling or what to do. When it comes to several of these conditions, it is important that you, as a friend, are aware of what’s happening, but know that the decision to get professional help is ultimately your friend’s choice. You should be supportive and patient, but adding too much pressure to a friend with any of these diseases could make it worse.

If you find that you’ve developed one of these mental health ailments, try to remember that your friends are looking out for your best interests. They want you to be well, and they are not attacking you. Talking about your problems with someone close to you may seem like a daunting task, but try to let them help you until you are ready to seek the professional help you need to get better.

Depression among college students wears many faces, and, in a survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, 36.4% of college students reported they experienced some level of depression in 2013. Depression is the number one reason students drop out of school, and is a gateway issue that, if left untreated, could lead to other symptoms or suicide. Depression is a common but serious illness that leaves you feeling despondent and helpless, completely detached from the world. It interferes with your life, making it difficult to work, study, sleep and eat.

Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain and are likely caused by a combination of genetics, biological, psychological and environmental factors. According to the American Psychological Association, there has been a significant increase in the number of students seeking help for serious mental health problems at campus counseling centers since the mid-1990s, with depression at the forefront of the concerns.

Symptoms

Symptoms for depression differ from person to person. It is caused by a chemical imbalance in our brains, so the way one displays depressive signs is not, necessarily, the way symptoms emerge in others. There will be similarities, but how each person reacts and behaves is determined by how they handle change, where they are in their lives and their proclivity to becoming depressed. Symptoms of depression may include, but are not limited to:

  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Change in appetite or weight
  • Slowed thinking or speech
  • Loss of interest in activities or social gatherings
  • Fatigue, loss in energy, sleeplessness
  • Feelings of guilt or anger over past failures
  • Trouble concentrating, indecisiveness
  • Anger or frustration for no distinct reason
  • Thoughts of dying, death and suicide

We all face some of these issues from time to time, but that does not automatically mean you or your friends are depressed. However, if you begin to experience these symptoms with some regularity, or several symptoms consecutively, you may want to consult your school’s mental health center. Identifying these issues in others can be tricky, as students often downplay or simply never talk about something deeply bothering them, often due to insecurities, fear of standing out or embarrassment.

Incoming college freshman are often told that college is the best four years of their lives. You have a new independence to do what you want, within legal bounds, and are free to explore who you are and what interests you most. But with that are many factors, like making friends, getting along with roommates or choosing classes for a specific semester, where you may feel you have little to no control.

The stresses of being away from home, managing coursework and finding your path can lead to intense feelings of inadequacy. You may feel helpless, as if you are just going through the motions, especially when you realize you’re not having the collegiate fun everyone insisted you would. These feelings, left unchecked, can lead to depression. With that in mind, it is important to understand how to both recognize the signs of depression and how to keep yourself healthy.

Recognizing the Signs

Recognizing the signs of depression in yourself and others can be tricky. Everyone has off days, or times when they become overwhelmed with life, but most well-adjusted people will bounce back in short order. Those days when you or your friends feel down or less excited about getting out of bed should not be cause for alarm. However, when days become weeks, and simply getting out of bed becomes a struggle, there is real cause to worry.

What Should You Do If You Start To Notice Signs of Depression in Your Friend?

If you begin to notice signs and symptoms of depression in a friend, there are several steps you can take to get them help. Here are some signs of depression to look for:

  • They are not enjoying activities they once loved
  • They no longer attend classes or social outings
  • They are experiencing extreme anger or sadness over a relationship in their life
  • They react negatively or with apathy to most things
  • They are talking about death or suicide

It almost goes without saying that you won’t have all the answers, but you can be a good listener when they attempt to discuss their issues. Offering words of encouragement shows your friend you are a source of support rather than one of criticism or judgment. Avoid telling your friends to “cheer up” or “snap out of it.” Many who are depressed are aware of their condition, and telling them to get over it, even with good intentions, is not helping. They often don’t have control over how they feel during their downward turns.

It is important to seek help from professionals for any level of depression, so if you feel your friend is at risk, encourage them to seek help and offer to accompany them, be it to a student health center or a doctor’s appointment. While talking through their issues with you may be helpful, it is not a substitute for treatment; depression can worsen or lead to a number of other mental illnesses if left untreated.

How Do You Know if You’re Depressed?

It’s important to understand your own susceptibility to depression. Knowing how you handle stress, feelings of isolation, homesickness and heartbreak may help you realize when you’re becoming depressed. For many who are already depressed, however, it’s difficult to look inward. Depression can be a cycle of dark thoughts and feeling worthless, and soul searching or self-awareness may not always be possible, but it is important that you try.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Have you experienced extreme sadness or hopelessness?
  • Does your family have a history of depression?
  • Have you turned to heavy drinking or drug use to relieve feelings of hopelessness?
  • Have you been experiencing thoughts of death or suicide?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you may want to contact your primary healthcare provider or your student health center for a mental health assessment. If you feel comfortable speaking with a friend or relative about your concerns, have someone help you research treatment options and accompany you to your campus health center. A support group could also be beneficial; the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance has a geographical locator for support groups in your area. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also offers a set of useful support tools.

Depression Resources

Those who suffer from depression often feel as if they are alone and have no one to turn to. That is never the case. The following organizations are dedicated to providing resources for those living with depression:

  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America: This organization is dedicated to promoting the prevention, treatment and cure of anxiety, depression and related disorders. Its site offers insight into understanding depressive mental illnesses, provides links for those seeking help and identifies mobile apps designed to help people living with depressive illnesses.
  • National Institute of Mental Health: A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIMH works to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and a cure. NIMH offers a wealth of information on pinpointing signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, resources for seeking help and opportunities to participate in clinical trials to further research.
  • ULifeline: This online resource for college students seeking mental health wellness provides a wealth of information, such as tips on helping friends in crisis and ideas on developing good wellness habits.
  • American College Health Association: The ACHA promotes healthy campus communities and works to serve as the principal leadership organization for advancing the health of college students. There are many resources such as help lines, brochures on different types of depression, and external links for seeking help.
  • The Jed Foundation: The foundation has a number of online resources to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college students. For example. Help a Friend in Need is a community guide for social media users to identify warning signs in friends at risk. Through its Half of Us campaign, the foundation promotes mental health awareness nationally via on-air or live events and connects students with health care providers.
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