Signs of Depression in College Students

May 29, 2022

Depression is common among college students. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 42% of college students reported experiencing depression within the last year that was so debilitating, they struggled to function. While some of these students may have been previously diagnosed with symptoms of depression, many of them hadn’t faced any mental health challenges in the past. That left them floundering when it came to how to address the problem or who to ask for help.

Unfortunately, beyond academic performance, many college professors and instructors aren’t too familiar with signs of depression in young adults. As a result, they’re unable to better guide college students to get the support and treatment they need, like visiting on-campus counseling centers or seeking mental health services. The students themselves may not realize that they’re suffering from depression, which is why having a professor or instructor who’s aware of the warning signs is extremely important. Getting help could make a young adult’s college experience easier and help them accomplish more in life.

Why Are College Students Vulnerable to Depression? 

There are many reasons why college students are vulnerable to depression. Being away from home and the difficulty of the classwork are two of the most common, especially among students who attend college right out of high school. Realizing how different it is to live by themselves or with roommates can leave these young adults feeling out of sorts, confused, and depressed. They’re unprepared for the mental health toll that moving into adulthood can take on them. 

Not only do they have to attend classes and keep up with their education, but college brings several other unique challenges to young adults. For example, they need to learn how to interact with others in a roommate situation and budget their time and energy effectively. But they also have to handle all the things that someone else might have been doing for them at home, such as taking out the trash, cooking meals, and keeping their space clean.

The pressure to perform well, get good grades, and have friends and romantic relationships can lead many students to struggle with issues of self care, like making sure they’re keeping proper sleep schedules. Some, for example, may develop unhealthy eating habits and gain weight — what’s known as the dreaded “freshman 15” — and this can further damage their self-esteem. Even students who don’t go away to college can be at risk for mental health issues like depression simply because college is such a significant change.

What Can Trigger an Episode of Depression in a College Student?

Sometimes an episode of depression in a college student seems to surface without warning. But there’s often a triggering event that leads to depression. Some common ones include:

  • Breaking up with a romantic interest
  • Being bullied or shunned
  • Failing a class, test, or project
  • Becoming overwhelmed with coursework
  • Being homesick

These are not the only reasons a college student could experience depression. Often, what causes mental health issues in one person won’t bother another. In some cases, while the event that triggered the depression may be minor, other problems had been building in the background. If a student is struggling academically, for example, and then their partner breaks up with them, it could seem like the breakup caused the depression. But, in reality, it was a combination of stressors that became too much for the student to handle.

What Are the Warning Signs of Depression in College Students?

Depression looks different in some people than it does in others. But there are a few common signs of depression in college students that educators want to look for. These include:

  • Skipping or missing classes
  • Failing or not turning in work
  • Sleeping or eating too much or not enough
  • Angry outbursts
  • Not caring about things they used to enjoy
  • Crying frequently or over small things
  • Substance abuse

Young adults may acknowledge that they’re becoming depressed, but it’s possible that they won’t fully realize it. It’s also possible they’ll say they can handle it without any help. In some cases, that’s true. But it’s a good idea for educators to watch for students who say they’re fine when it’s clear that they aren’t doing well. Making sure students know help is available can make a big difference.

What Resources Do Students Have When Dealing With Depression?

No one should have to battle depression alone, but many people do. For young adults dealing with depression, having the right resources available — including a support system — often keeps them healthier, happier, and able to complete their coursework more easily. Where the students are located (on-campus or remote), as well as whether they are traditional or nontraditional students, typically affects available resources.

On-Campus Students 

Most students who live on campus have access to a student support center. This center offers primary medical care, including care for mental health issues like depression. There may be a counselor available, and there will also be referral information for other mental health professionals in the area. Especially if a student attends college far from home, working with a professional to treat their depression can help them succeed. If there aren’t any options close to them, using an online service may help them find a professional they can talk to about their depression and other mental health concerns.

Remote or distance learning students 

Students attending college remotely will want to look for mental health professionals in their local area. They may also have virtual mental health care appointments available through their school’s support center. If a student doesn’t have good options for local counseling, online and app-based counseling services can help. Additionally, talking to their primary doctor can get them a referral to a mental health professional and medication if needed to help treat their depression.

Nontraditional students 

Nontraditional students may have a more challenging time finding resources to treat their depression. These students are often professionals who have gone back to school. They frequently have careers and families, and they don’t have much time in the day. They may already be juggling many responsibilities, and they may be resistant to the idea of adding in counseling appointments or taking medication. Talking with their family doctor or seeking out mental health care on their own are often their most accessible and best options.

How Can Educators Interact With Students if They Suspect They’re Suffering From Depression?

Interacting with students should be relatively easy for educators. However, when working with depressed students, that ease isn’t always there. Signs of depression in college students include being withdrawn and apathetic. These young adults may not communicate with other students or their instructors or professors that much. As a result, they can be overlooked, and educators might not notice that something is wrong. 

Paying attention to students who don’t have much to say, don’t seem to have friends, or are suddenly doing poorly or missing classes is important. But college professors and instructors need to be careful how they approach these students. Not all students want or need to talk about their depression, especially if they’re already aware of it, looking for help, or undergoing treatment. These students already know they’re struggling and may be uncomfortable having it pointed out.

Other students may feel singled out or think their instructor doesn’t like or have any confidence in them. That could make the student feel worse and less likely to interact with that instructor if they need help in the future. Interacting with students should be done more broadly, with an open-door policy and clear communication that the educator is available to students who may need to talk or seek assistance. A no-judgment policy is also helpful because most college students already deal with a lot. They may feel their professor or instructor will see them as incapable if they seek help.

What Should Educators Do if They Think a Student Is Dealing With Depression? 

Any educator who thinks a student is dealing with depression should help if possible. But pushing that help on a student isn’t going to go over well in most cases. Rather than corner the student, ask them to stay after class, or otherwise single them out, a more blanket statement made to the entire class can help students feel safer. 

If a student appears to be in crisis or an educator believes a student is a danger to themselves due to mental health issues like depression, making sure that the student gets help is more urgent. Asking student services, the police, or a crisis center to intervene may be necessary. However, that should only be done in serious cases. While an educator doesn’t want to ignore serious issues, overreacting can also cause problems for a student who isn’t in any danger. 

Depression in college students isn’t uncommon, but it’s mild and treatable in many cases. Students often adjust and improve once they’ve been attending classes for a while and have settled into their new routine and environment. For students who fail to settle in, though, intervention from professors, instructors, and student support services can help them address their depression so that they can get the most value from their college experience.

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