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Depression & College Students Mental Health, the Classroom & the Importance of Getting Help Early

Depression and anxiety have become increasingly prevalent in today’s college students, with many stating these mental health issues are their biggest barriers to doing well in school. In fact, 16 percent of college students reported that depression had a negative impact on their academic performance in 2017, with anxiety impacting over 24 percent of students. With depression affecting more and more young adults, it’s important for schools to provide adequate resources for their students and for students to take advantage of the support available to them.

In this guide, students can learn about common factors of depression in college and where to get help. Plus colleges and universities can find tips for supporting the mental health of their students.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Michael Alcee Clinical Psychologist
Susan Lichtfuss, LCPC Child & Family Therapist

Written By:

Depression in College Students — What the Numbers Show

Depression is the most common health problem for college students.

Over 39% of college students “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” at least once during the 2016-2017 academic school year.

Over 60% of college students have felt overwhelmed by anxiety at least once in the last 12 months.

Around 31% of college students have seriously considered suicide.

Because 75 percent of the lifetime cases of mental health issues begin before the age of 24 – and because college is a particularly stress-inducing time in a person’s life – the need for comprehensive, accessible mental health services on college campuses is greater than ever.

According to the National Network of Depression Centers (NNDC), depression is the leading cause of disability in Americans aged 15 to 44, with the disorder affecting nearly seven percent of the country’s population as a whole. Aside from the effects of depression on the individual, mental health issues result in a $210.5-billion-dollar loss to the economy each year.

Signs of Depression in College

Stress and anxiety are very common during the college years, so how can students know when what they’re experiencing is a sign of something more? Here are a few signs that you may be experiencing symptoms of depression:

It’s normal to feel sad or low some of the time. But those experiencing depression feel sad for most of the day for days at a time.

“Students will know they are experiencing more serious depression when they are feeling a sense of hopelessness, despair, apathy, and most importantly, a disconnection from their feelings,” says Dr. Michael Alcee, a clinical psychologist with a decade of experience in college counseling.

“Depression is a pushing down of one’s feelings,” notes Dr. Alcee. “Like a loss of appetite, more serious depression can be noticed when the color and interest in the world and its many wonders run dry.”

When a student experiences depression, it can sometimes feel all-consuming. Everyday details like making decisions, writing papers and turning in assignments often fall by the wayside.

Students experiencing depression are often aware how their behavior is being perceived by others but feel helpless to make any changes. Because of this, many feel overwhelming guilt about the supposed “burden” they’re putting on friends, family, professors and peers.

An occasional head or body ache isn’t unusual for students. But for many people experiencing depression, physical symptoms are frequent and don’t respond to usual remedies, like taking over-the-counter pain medicine.

A sign of chronic depression is the feeling that you can’t get out of bed to face the world or fulfill your responsibilities for an extended period of time.

The persistent inability to go to sleep – or if you do get to sleep, to stay that way – can be a sign of depression, especially if it lasts for an extended period of time.

Feeling like you have nothing to offer or that you wouldn’t be missed if you were no longer here is a sign of severe depression. Don’t hesitate to tell a trusted adult or your healthcare provider if you’re feeling this way.

DepressionToolkit.org from the University of Michigan Depression Center also provides a depression health questionnaire to help students determine if they’re experiencing symptoms of depression.

If students are experiencing these symptoms, they should discuss them with their healthcare provider or other mental health professional. Experiencing any of these symptoms should not be taken as a diagnosis of depression. A healthcare provider can help students determine if they are experiencing any mental health issues and the best course of treatment.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to get help. Call 911, go to the nearest hospital or call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

You can find out more about suicide prevention and resources in our guide to Suicide Prevention in College.

Causes of Depression in College

Because so many life changes take place in college’s relatively short time-frame, it’s no surprise that many students are especially vulnerable to depression during this chapter of their life. There are many reasons a student may feel depressed, though there isn’t always an obvious cause. It can be helpful for students to determine if any outside factors may be contributing to feelings of depression when seeking treatment.

Here are some common causes that can sometimes contribute to symptoms of depression:

Homesickness & Loneliness

Many students are so focused on the excitement of starting college, making new friends and new experiences that they often don’t process the significant change happening in their lives until they’ve been at school for a few weeks or months. Leaving home is a big step in any person’s life, and homesickness can hit when you least expect it.

Many students also deal with loneliness – in fact over 62% of college students in a 2017 survey by the American College Health Association (ACHA) said they felt “very lonely” within the last 12 months. It’s also normal to feel a sense of loss and mourn childhood; even though many students go home for holidays and summer break, it takes a while to reconcile the fact that you’re now an adult.

Given the ever-rising costs of college, it’s no surprise that many students are significantly stressed about money. In fact, 70 percent of college students are stressed about finances, according to the 2015 National Student Financial Wellness Study. 32 percent of the students surveyed also reported neglecting academics at least some of the time due to the money they owed, which can lead to additional worry and stress about academic performance.

Find out more about managing your finances during college.

The pressure to succeed may have been felt strongly in high school, but often college students feel a greater sense of anxiety as performance in college can directly correlate to their future career successes. There are many factors that have contributed to an increase in academic pressure on college students, including more involved parents, a more competitive environment and a lack of resilience when faced with failure. College unquestionably demands higher levels of concentration, critical thinking and time management, and students who haven’t yet learned these skills struggle.

Approximately 90 percent of students – both male and female – say they worry about their body image. And those with a negative body image are more likely to experience feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem and eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Find out more about eating disorders in college.

According to Mental Health America (MHA), depression and drinking among college students often goes hand-in-hand — those suffering from depression often drink more and those who drink more often suffer more from depression. Drinking can also lead to risky behavior, the consequences of which can lead to additional mental health problems.

Getting a grip on this side of your life may seem impossible in an atmosphere that often encourages partying, but finding help and support when you’re misusing substances can significantly improve stress, anxiety and depression symptoms.

Find out more about substance abuse in college.

The current generation of college students spends a lot of time on social media – a 2014 study found college students spend between 8 and ten hours per day on their cellphones. Numerous studies have come out that link social media use with lower moods, reduced self-esteem and increased stress, anxiety and depression.

It’s unclear exactly why social media use is tied to rises in stress, anxiety and depression, but some experts suggest it could be the constant bombardment with stressful media, unrealistic comparison to others or the sleep disruption caused by constant viewing of lit-up screens.

Getting Help for Depression in College

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), almost 73 percent of students with a mental health condition experienced a health crisis on campus, but over 34 percent reported their college didn’t know about it. Many college students may not know where to get help when they’re experiencing symptoms of depression or what they can do to manage their symptoms. Fortunately, there are many resources on and off campus that can help.

Where to Get Help

Active Minds

This national mental health nonprofit has chapters on college campuses throughout the country that empower students to speak openly about their challenges and seek appropriate support.

Campus Counseling Center

As the need for mental health professionals grows on campuses, colleges are bringing on more psychologists and psychiatrists to meet these needs. Check to see if your school has a counseling and psychological services office like this one at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

Campus Health Center

Many campus health centers – such as the one at the University of Louisville – provide a range of mental health services to help students address their concerns and find help. At UL, students can receive support for depression, mood problems, panic attacks, anxiety, eating disorders and other symptoms.

National Alliance on Mental Health

NAMI maintains a number of chapters on college campuses to raise awareness of mental health issues, advocate for services and help students find resources.

Campus Wellness Groups

Programs like Mind Works at the University of Michigan provide students with a place where they can discuss common challenges, learn about coping strategies, connect with other students and receive help for their mental health needs.

JED Foundation

This national nonprofit is working to drastically reduce the number of suicides by college students and includes a hotline among its various resources. Students can Text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if they need immediately help with a mental health problem.

Mastering College Stress and Anxiety

Ohio University provides this guide to students who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety disorders or depression and are in need of practical steps to restore their mental health.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Students in extreme emotional distress can call 1-800-273-TALK 24/7 to receive support and guidance from trained professionals.

Student Veterans of America

College students who are military veterans may be dealing with PTSD or other forms of anxiety and depression. SVA provides info on campus-based resources as well as national support systems.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Hotline

This hotline is open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. EST every day and helps students find treatment services in their communities.

Your Healthcare Provider

If your campus doesn’t have adequate resources or there’s a waiting list, get in touch with your healthcare provider to learn about options. It’s possible they can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist within your insurance network.

Treatment for Depression

Numerous avenues exist for treating depression, all of which should be discussed with a medical professional before taking any action. Some of the most common include:

  • Psychotherapy

    Often speaking to a trained professional about symptoms and feelings can help students better manage any mental health issues they’re experiencing. Common types of psychotherapy include interpersonal therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • Medication

    A number of different types of antidepressants are now on the market to treat a spectrum of issues related to depression and/or anxiety.

  • Neuromodulation

    This form of therapy uses electrical or magnetic currents to stimulate and alter brain activity and has been used effectively to treat certain cases of depression.

Tips for Managing Depression & Improving Mental Health

The idea of adding a self-care routine to your already jam-packed schedule may seem impossible, but it’s important to consider all the immediate and lasting benefits of taking time out of your day to ensure you’re treating yourself well.

In addition to working with a mental health professional on managing your symptoms, many of these simple tips can help students improve their overall frame of mind and quality of life.

  • Get enough sleep

    College students are notorious for pulling all-nighters, but doing this regularly takes a toll on your brain health and can ultimately exacerbate the symptoms of depression. According to the University of Michigan Depression Center, 60 to 80 percent of patients with depression experience some kind of sleep disturbance. Sleep requirements are different for each person, but students should ideally aim for between seven and nine hours of rest per night.

  • Move your body

    Exercise can help reduce symptoms of depression by releasing endorphins (the feel-good chemicals in your brain) and providing a mental distraction that can help break the negative thought cycles that can feed into depression. If hitting the gym isn’t appealing, try adding in a daily walk with your roommate or a round of basketball at the campus rec center. Any form of regular movement can give you a boost.

  • Eat a healthy diet

    Quick convenience foods can be tempting, but processed food high in sugar won’t provide your brain and body with the energy it needs to succeed in school. Not only will improving your diet improve your overall wellbeing, it’s also been shown to improve symptoms of depression, according to a recent study.

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol

    Substances often intensify the symptoms of depression, especially when abused. And, as outlined above, they can lead to risky behaviors that can impact a student’s mental health.

  • Practice mindfulness

    A 2015 study by Oxford University found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in the treatment of ongoing depression can be just as effective as antidepressant drugs in helping prevent a relapse into the worst symptoms. If you haven’t practiced mindfulness before or don’t know how to begin, check out our guide to meditation and mindfulness on campus.

  • Build a support system

    Develop a group of two or more people you can regularly check in with about how things are really going for you. They can be a roommate, classmate, professor or anyone you feel comfortable confiding in. This can help you manage stressful feelings or situations before they become anxiety- or depression-provoking.

How to Talk About Depression

Although many college students may feel ashamed or embarrassed about their struggles with depression, it’s important for anyone struggling with their mental health to realize that there’s nothing wrong or shameful about asking for help.

The following section looks at some of the most common questions college students have when deciding to talk about their depression. Answers are provided by Dr. Michael Alcee, a clinical psychologist with a decade of experience in college counseling, and Susan Lichtfuss, a licensed child and family therapist and certified suicide prevention trainer.

Should I tell my friends and peers about my depression?

Dr. Alcee

There are many ways to talk about depression with family and friends, but one that I find most important is for people to know that it’s nothing to be scared of. Just as people often have a very difficult time when talking about death, many also find depression a challenging topic to approach. 

It’s crucial for students to let family, friends and teachers know that depression results from a number of different factors and they just need to be understanding and present.

There is a wonderful scene in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” when the main character, Dwayne, finds out that he is color blind and can’t fulfill his dream of being an air force pilot. What helps Dwayne the most is when his little sister sits right beside him and puts her head on his shoulder. She is just present. It is important for family, friends and teachers to know that this presence and compassion is the most important piece.

It is okay to tell friends about depression if that helps a student feel understood and supported, and it is also fine if a student would like to have space to be able to work these issues out in their own way.

Susan Lichtfuss:

If you’re not comfortable talking with your friends about your feelings of depression, it’s important to find someone you are comfortable with to confide in, such as a trusted adult. Don’t keep your feelings of depression to yourself.

My depression frequently makes it hard for me to be social on campus. How can I explain to friends and peers why I often skip going out?

Dr. Alcee

It is important to translate to friends that depression can sometimes make it hard to be social because of the way in which it zaps energy and interest. It is helpful to let friends know that this isn’t personal – it is part of an internal process. Depression often functions by pushing somebody to retreat and retract so that they can figure out what is going on with all of the feelings that they haven’t been able to attend to. 

Susan Lichtfuss:

Sometimes people isolate themselves because they are in too much pain internally to be able to pretend to be okay. They may not be able to figure things out. This can be a warning sign of suicidality. If you feel overwhelmed by your feelings of depression, you shouldn’t keep them to yourself. Find a trusted adult to confide in, seek help at your campus mental health center or call the suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255) if you need to talk with someone immediately.

Should I tell my professors about my depression?

Dr. Alcee

It can be helpful to talk to professors if you feel comfortable and safe with them, and if you think it might help explain some of your challenges in class, or if you’d like to have somebody else on your support team to help you through. Somebody like a teacher who understands and is in your corner can make a very big difference!

Can I ask for accommodations at my school for my depression? How do I request them?

Dr. Alcee

Depression can be severely debilitating and can greatly interfere with academic functioning. It is totally understandable and reasonable to seek out accommodations when you are really struggling. The best way is to go to the office of disability services and/or the counseling center to coordinate a plan that is tailored for your emotional and academic goals.

How can I talk to my parents about my depression?

Dr. Alcee

Just as the above, it is important to let parents know that depression has got you feeling “not like yourself,” unmotivated and hopeless, and maybe even let them know that it feels like you are completely drained and you don’t know why. It is important to let them know that there are a lot of reasons for it, and not to be worried, but you’d like to find out more about what you can do about it and how they can be of support.

How can I tell my healthcare provider that I think I’m depressed?

Dr. Alcee

Your doctor is the most important person to be honest with, whether you’re dealing with your physical or mental health. Healthcare providers are naturally caring individuals who are there to help you, so why not take advantage of them? There’s no reason to self-diagnose when you have healthcare to help.

Susan Lichtfuss:

Many healthcare providers have some training in mental health. If you want to just say, “I haven’t been feeling myself lately,” or “I have been feeling depressed,” that’s enough. The important thing is saying it.

What Colleges Can Do to Address Depression on Campus

The vast majority of today’s colleges and universities recognize that depression among students is a very serious issue. And many are taking concrete steps to ensure that robust programs and plans are in place to help students tackle mental health problems.

Here are some of the ways colleges are helping combat student depression:

  • Grief Support Groups

    After discovering that a high number of students had experienced loss or tragedy at a young age and still faced depression over those events, Furman University put together a six-week coffee talk titled “Life After Loss” where students can come together to share stories, find common ground and develop healthy ways of coping.

  • Nutrition and Wellness Centers

    Studies have shown that diets high in refined sugar can contribute to depression, as can a sedentary lifestyle. Some colleges have taken this research and put it to good use by creating nutrition and wellness centers to help students take control of their nutrition, support good brain health and ensure they’re regularly releasing endorphins. St. Olaf College provides a great example of such a program.

  • Online Therapy

    Davidson University recently introduced a pilot program in partnership with Therapy Assistance Online to help students with less severe depression receive support. After meeting with an on-campus counselor for an initial consultation, students use an interactive online therapy program for follow-up support.

  • Pet Therapy

    Interacting with animals can improve students’ wellbeing and even reduce feelings of homesickness. With that in mind, a number of colleges have introduced pet therapy programs – including Kent State University. Some schools bring them in for midterms and finals, while others have year-round programs available.

  • Recovery Houses

    Substance abuse greatly impacts the likelihood of students experiencing depression and, in some cases, dropping out of school. Recognizing this growing problem, Rutgers University developed the first substance abuse recovery house where students experiencing these issues can live on campus and receive treatment without leaving college.

School Spotlight

The schools highlighted below have all received The Jed Foundation’s JedCampus seal of distinction for providing outstanding mental health services to college students throughout the nation.

  • Alfred University

    This New York-based school offers a comprehensive roster of mental health services designed to fit the needs of students with minor to major depression-related issues. The university provides group counseling for students to discuss shared experiences, one-to-one counseling, alcohol and drug education, educational programs and workshops on mental health for residence halls and student organizations, and a variety of wellness center programs.

  • California Polytechnic State University

    Cal Poly maintains an array of counseling services to help students experiencing mental health issues. In addition to having several on-staff licensed counselors available, the school also maintains a community referral list if a student needs specialized treatment. A crisis service is available to students who need immediate help and the school also provides a series of three-week emotional wellbeing workshops that help students develop coping tools. A range of parent resources are also available.

  • Harvard University

    Harvard University takes a holistic view of mental health and provides services that meet the day-to-day needs of students experiencing mental health problems. Aside from providing a staff of competent and caring psychologists/psychoanalysts, the school maintains a 24/7 urgent care program. Peer support groups include student mental health liaisons, drug and alcohol advisors, and health advisors and liaisons. Workshops and group counseling are available for a variety of different topics and are facilitated by licensed therapists. The school also has two full-time certified therapy dogs.

  • New York University

    NYU recognizes that, in addition to all the usual stresses of college and adulthood, students also contend with the anxiety and stress of living in New York City. Because of that, the university provides what’s known as the “relaxation oasis,” a tool that helps students learn mindfulness and meditation as they go about their days. Other services include individual and group counseling, access to psychiatric medication (provided they have an NYU-sponsored health insurance plan), two-part workshops that teach students how to enhance their emotional and mental well-being and consultation about mental health services available during study abroad trips.

Depression Resources for Schools

Depression in Graduate School

A 2013 study by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that approximately half of all doctoral students never gain their degrees, and much of the research suggests that factors like stress, anxiety, depression and other causes of mental distress are the culprit. In a 2012 survey of graduate students at UC Berkeley, 45 percent of students reported having an emotional or stress-related problem in the past year. Depression in graduate school isn’t something that’s commonly talked about, but as more students leave school without finishing, it’s important for colleges and universities to examine the problem.

Why is Depression Common Among Graduate Students?

How Can Graduate Students Combat Depression?

UC Berkeley has taken a strong stance in support of graduate student mental health following their 2012 survey. Here are some of the ways the university suggests graduate students improve their mental health:

  • Take advantage of mental health resources

    Most mental health resources on college campuses are available to both undergraduate and graduate students. Take advantage of campus counselors, support groups and other resources on campus. Many graduate students may not realize these resources are also at their disposal.

  • Get support from peers

    MIT offers the REFS (Resources for Easing Friction and Stress) program, which trains students in conflict management. The program offers peer-to-peer support, counseling and mentoring. Look for similar or other peer support programs at your school.

  • Practice mindfulness

    Many universities offer mindfulness or meditation workshops to help graduate and undergraduate students manage stress. If you’re college or university doesn’t offer a mindfulness class, there are many resources online that can walk you through mindfulness and meditation exercises.

  • Try career counseling

    Being uncertain of your next steps can be incredibly stressful, especially for graduate students who have invested an extensive amount of time and money into their future. Utilizing career counseling at your school’s career center can help you make concrete goals to reduce uncertainty and stress.

Depression Resources

  • American Psychiatric Association’s Help with Depression

    The APA has a number of different blogs, events and resources to help students find competent mental health practitioners and learn more about depression.

  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America

    The ADAA connects students with a range of service providers and resources when seeking help to treat anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

    DBSA offers a range of programs and services, including wellness tools, peer support groups and events.

  • Panic Relief App — iTunes / Google Play

    This free app helps students deal with anxiety, panic and stress by providing quick meditations and treatments based off cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • FAQs for College Students Experiencing Depression

    NAMI provides this comprehensive list of common questions and answers for students looking to learn more about symptoms of and treatments for depression.

  • ULifeline

    An online resource for college mental health, this website provides a selection of blogs, news articles and research related to anxiety and depression in higher education.

  • The Jed Foundation

    Students who know they’re likely to deal with anxiety and/or depression in college can use the Jed Foundation’s list of schools with outstanding mental health services to find an institution that is well-equipped to serve their needs.