Depression and College Students

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Table of Contents: Depression & College Students
1. Signs of Depression
2. Causes of Depression
3.How to Talk about Depression
4. Getting Help for Depression in College
5. Tips for Managing Depression and Improving Mental Health
6. Resources for Depression

College student depression pervades, with one in four young adults aged 18-24 diagnosed with mental illness. College pressure can increase feelings of isolation for students struggling with depression, but they are not alone.

Many colleges and universities recognize how various school stresses exacerbate the link between depression and college students. In response, they offer programs that can help students during this difficult time. Schools typically staff counselors and other licensed professionals who provide mental health services to students.

This page shares some of the common symptoms and causes of depression in college students. Readers will also find helpful resources and ways to manage and improve their mental health.

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College Depression, Mental Health, and the Importance of Getting Help Early

Many students experience changes in their mental health during college. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness data, over 40% of college students experienced increased feelings of stress over the past year. Nearly 73% of students living with a mental health condition experienced a crisis related to that condition on campus.

College student depression manifests in different and often individualized ways. More than 80% of learners expressed feeling overwhelmed with the many responsibilities, tasks, and other commitments. Sometimes, this overwhelm turns into feelings of hopelessness.

Recognizing the signs of depression in college helps students receive the support they need. Getting help early can alleviate symptoms, with 80% of those who seek treatment for depression showing improvement within 4-6 weeks.

Signs of Depression in College



The following list shares some signs of college student depression. It does not encompass all signs or symptoms of depression in college students, just some of the more common ones. If exhibiting signs of depression, students should seek additional help. Many colleges offer services for students to receive the support they need if experiencing signs of depression.

  • Persistent Feelings of Sadness
  • Feeling Disconnected from Emotions
  • Lack of Interest in the World Around You
  • Trouble Focusing
  • Guilt
  • Persistent Body Aches
  • Insomnia
  • Not Getting Out of Bed
  • Feeling Like the World Would Be Better off Without You

The University of Michigan Depression Center provides a depression health questionnaire to help students determine if they’re experiencing symptoms of depression. If students experience 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 recommend 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



Depression stems from various life circumstances or experiences. College students especially experience many life changes and pressures that can lead to depression. The following list shares some of the known causes of college student depression, but does not address every cause.


  • Homesickness and Loneliness

    Living far from family and friends for the first time can cause feelings of homesickness and loneliness. Homesickness can increase feelings of isolation, so finding ways to connect with other students or keeping busy may help. Many colleges offer extracurricular activities or on-campus jobs where students can get to know others.


  • Financial Stress

    Many students worry about paying tuition and monthly expenses when attending school. This stress can increase overwhelming feelings and prevent students from focusing on coursework. Seeking financial advice or talking to someone about your situation can relieve some of the mental burden of financial stress. Students worried about finances may also try creating a monthly budget.


  • Academic Stress

    Many college students feel pressure to achieve academic success. The stress of this pressure in addition to high amounts of coursework can cause increased levels of anxiety and depression. Getting enough sleep and creating other healthy habits helps increase focus and improve overall mood. Eating healthy and establishing a consistent exercise routine also helps.


  • Low Self-Esteem

    Feelings of low self-esteem affect the way we feel about ourselves. Many students struggle with low self-esteem in response to academic pressures and other stresses. Keeping a solid self-care routine or a record of accomplishments may help increase students’ self-esteem. Learners can also create a list of their strengths or seek positive feedback from friends and family.


  • Drug and Alcohol Use

    With increased stress in college, some students turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope or alleviate stress. Thirty percent of those diagnosed with clinical depression also struggle with addiction and substance abuse. Students struggling with depression related to drug and alcohol use should seek help from an on- or off-campus counselor.


  • Social Media Use

    Recent studies show higher reported depression rates for young adults spending more time on social media platforms. Higher social media usage can disrupt concentration and decrease physical activity. College students can ensure healthy social media activity by turning off notifications and making time for other activities.


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.

Dr. Michael Alcee and Susan Lichtfuss

Q. 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 airforce 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.

Q. 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. Having somebody like a teacher who understands in your corner can make a very big difference.

Q. 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.

Q. How can I talk to my parents about my depression?

Dr. Alcee: It is important to let parents know that depression has got you feeling “not like yourself,” unmotivated, and hopeless. 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 that you’d like to find out more about what you can do about it and how they can be of support.


Getting Help for Depression in College



Struggling individuals receive help for college student depression from both on-campus and off-campus resources. Many schools offer counseling services or other resources to support students experiencing mental health challenges. Learners can also meet with off-campus mental health professionals. The following list offers some common resources for students struggling with depression in college.

On Campus


  • Active Minds A nonprofit organization, Active Minds promotes mental health for young adults. Individuals can find resources on how to find treatment or help a friend struggling with college student depression.
  • National Alliance on Mental Health Many campuses host National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) clubs. NAMI clubs raise mental health awareness, educate students, and advocate for improved policies on campus. NAMI helps these clubs offer peer support on campus.
  • Campus Counseling Center Most colleges offer mental health services at their campus counseling center. Counseling centers typically employ licensed mental health professionals knowledgeable about both depression and college students. Learners can talk to them about their mental health challenges.
  • Campus Health Center Schools offer outpatient health services to treat urgent or ongoing health concerns. These centers help students live healthy lifestyles through education and preventative care.
  • Campus Wellness Groups Many schools offer campus wellness groups where students can learn about mental health. Campus wellness groups typically offer resources to help students manage academic stress. Learners receive peer support as well.

Off Campus


  • JED Foundation A nonprofit organization, JED Foundation partners with colleges to teach students about mental health and suicide prevention. Through the programs, degree-seekers learn how to help themselves and each other through mental health challenges.
  • Mastering College Stress and Anxiety Ohio University offers a list of anxiety disorders common in college students and ways to cope. This page points users to other online resources on anxiety and depression college students experience.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free and confidential emotional support to people in crisis. This national network of local crisis centers answers calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Student Veterans of America Student Veterans of America empower veterans through local, on-campus college chapters. The organization provides resources and advocates for veterans in higher education.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Hotline SAMHSA leads public behavioral health initiatives through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency strives to reduce the impact of mental health and substance abuse by offering information and services.
  • Your Healthcare Provider Scheduling an appointment with a healthcare provider can help students receive a diagnosis. Healthcare providers offer referrals to other specialists and provide resources on how to manage college student depression.

Tips for Managing Depression and Improving Mental Health

Get Enough Sleep
Sleep deprivation impairs learning and creates memory issues that lead to other mental health challenges. Getting enough sleep drastically improves mood and overall health. College students improve sleep with good sleep schedules and regular exercise. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol can also help students sleep better.
Move Your Body
With a busy schedule, college students may experience difficulty finding time to exercise. Regular exercise promotes both physical and emotional health. Joining a team or scheduling exercise into your calendar can help stay on track. Finding enjoyable ways to move your body, such as dancing or team sports, makes exercise a rejuvenating experience.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Stress and tight schedules can make eating healthy difficult for many college students. A healthy diet increases focus and energy. Starting the day with a good breakfast or keeping healthy snacks on hand throughout the day can help promote a healthy lifestyle. Increasing fruit and vegetable intake creates healthy eating habits.
Avoid Drugs and Alcohol
The National Institute On Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 4 in 5 college students drink alcohol, with 25% reporting academic problems due to drinking. Drinking culture pervades college campuses, but students looking to avoid drugs and alcohol can find other ways to spend time with friends. Attending movies or spending time outside together allow students to socialize without substance use.
Practice Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness can decrease stress and anxiety in college students. Mindfulness increases attention and compassion for ourselves and others. Taking a little time every day to practice can make a difference. Students can find resources on how to start their practice. Many colleges offer clubs or events where students can meditate together.
Build a Support System
A strong support system helps students navigate the stresses of college and manage depression symptoms. Faculty and advisors can help manage academic stress. Connect with friends or join in on a new activity to build your support system. Many students volunteer, start a book club, or join a sports team to get to know others.

Resources for Depression


  • American Psychiatric Association's Help with Depression The American Psychiatric Association shares symptoms of depression and college students' common treatments. The page provides help in finding local psychiatrists, support groups, and other resources to help manage depression in college.
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers guides on the treatment of depression and other related mental health diagnoses. This page provides information about support groups and tips for helping friends and family.
  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance shares stories of those living with bipolar mood disorders. Sharing these stories helps empower others living with mood disorders, create community, and decrease feelings of isolation.
  • The Jed Foundation The Jed Foundation works to promote emotional health and prevent suicide in teens and young adults. Through resources and volunteering, the nonprofit organization helps students navigate mental health challenges.

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