What Parents Need to Know About College Depression
College is an important life transition for young adults. For parents it is a time to be proud, happy, sad, and worried all at once. One very important concern is the growing issue of campus depression. Depression is a common mental illness, but college students are more susceptible to it at this time of big changes and new independence. Help your child by talking about depression, knowing the signs, supporting them throughout the college experience, and getting treatment if it becomes necessary.
Sending your child off to college is a big transition. Worrying is perfectly normal. Most parents worry about things like their child making friends, fitting in, doing well in classes, and money. But another important concern for college students is mental health. Depression is a real medical condition, and college students are especially vulnerable to it. College depression is a growing problem, but you can take steps to protect your child. Recognize the issue and the signs of depression, and talk to your child about it. Both prevention and treatment can be effective in managing this illness.
College depression is not a specific diagnosis but refers to depression that begins when a young adult is in college. Depression is a mental illness categorized as a mood disorder. Not just a mental illness, this is a serious medical condition. Depression causes a persistent low mood. It makes you feel sad, hopeless, empty, even angry and irritable.
What causes depression varies and cannot necessarily be pinpointed. Genetics and environment work together to trigger depressive episodes and to make some people more vulnerable. College is a time of transition during which a young person may feel anxious or stressed. This can be a trigger, especially in someone already predisposed to depression.
The consequences of living with depression are far-reaching. With depression your child may lose interest in activities, including school and classes. They may self-medicate and develop an alcohol or drug use disorder. Depression can even trigger suicidal behaviors. The good news about this terrible condition is that it is treatable. Regular, ongoing therapy and medical care can help anyone manage and live better with depression.
College and Depression – Facts and Statistics
Depression on campus is a growing problem and one that parents and students both need to know about. According to surveys and studies, campus health centers are seeing record numbers of students with mental health complaints. One survey found that 95 percent of college counseling centers are seeing an increase in students seeking services. The biggest issue presented is anxiety, but that is closely followed by depression.
There are many reasons that college students are more vulnerable to depression. Any major life change, like moving out of the home, can be stressful and lead to depression. Other factors include the stress of academics and balancing classes with sports, recreation, and other activities, relationship difficulties, inadequate sleep, poor nutrition, and substance use.
Signs of Clinical Depression
The signs of depression vary by individual but are summarized well in the criteria used to make a diagnosis. Mental health professionals look for these nine symptoms when diagnosing depression:
- A depressed mood, which may include sadness, irritability, emptiness, and hopelessness
- Loss of interest in activities, inability to get pleasure from them
- Changes in eating habits and weight
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than normal
- Psychomotor retardation or agitation, which means either slowed down movements or an unusual increase in movements
- Feeling worthless, guilty, or ashamed
- Difficulty thinking, focusing on tasks, and making decisions
- Thoughts of death and suicide, suicidal behaviors
You may not be able to see many of these classic signs of depression while your child is on campus. There are other indicators, though, that may be cause for concern:
- Changes in friends or not having any friends
- Social isolation
- Declining academic performance
- Dropping out of activities and clubs
- Problematic drinking or drug use
- Self-harm or impulsive, risky behaviors
Talking to Your Child About Depression
It’s difficult to let go of your child and trust that they will succeed away from home and your protection. But college is an important time that many young people get to test their independence. One important thing that you can do to set your child on the right path is to discuss mental health. Before your child leaves for college, talk about depression:
- Discuss the facts and statistics so your child knows that depression is a real concern for this new stage of their life.
- Let them know that they can come to you with any concern, without judgment or anger.
- Talk about the signs of depression and how to recognize them early.
- Find out about mental health services on campus and make sure your child knows how to access them.
- Talk about drugs and drinking and how substance abuse can impact mental health.
Knowledge is power, and what may seem obvious to you is not necessarily so to your child. Be honest and never assume your child knows what to do about feeling sad or depressed. Talking about depression won’t necessarily prevent it, but it can prevent some of the more serious consequences by giving your child the information that will empower them to get help early.
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Supporting Your Child in College
It’s time to let your child spread their wings and live independently, but that doesn’t mean you have to step back from their life entirely. Especially if you have concerns about depression, it is important to check in and keep the lines of communication open. Because you can’t see your child most of the time, you should look for signs of depression in more indirect ways. For instance, check on grades from time to time or talk to their friends who may share any concerns.
Encouraging your child to make healthy lifestyle choices is also important. Eating well, getting adequate exercise and sleep are important for overall good health. Also important is participation. Push your child to get involved in campus groups, recreational sports teams, and other social events. Good social support, from friends and family, is protective against depression.
When Treatment Is Necessary
If your child does develop depression during the college years, there is help available. Your child may want to start with the campus health center. All colleges have mental health services, but not all students know how to access them. Help your child find the right resources to get evaluated and to be assigned a counselor for sessions.
In some situations it may become necessary to remove your child from campus and to find more intensive treatment. When campus services are not adequate and your child is really struggling, they may need to take a semester off. There is no shame in doing so. Remind your child that this is a genuine medical condition and to get better they may need long-term treatment.
Consider finding a residential program for your child struggling with depression. A residential facility can provide a safe environment, an individualized treatment plan, and a highly-trained, expert staff. A few weeks or months in treatment can prepare your child to live with depression, to manage symptoms, and to be able to go back to college ready to succeed.
College depression is a real phenomenon, and it’s one that is on the rise. All parents need to be aware of this potential danger of going off to school. It’s not a reason to avoid college or campus living, but depression is serious. Both you and your child need to be informed about the risks, the signs, and the treatment options. When you prepare your child for college and to make healthy choices you may prevent depression, but even if your child does develop this illness, help is available and treatment is effective.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.