Ask A Psychologist is a continuing series of advice and discussion from Dr. Chaz Mailey, psychologist at K-State Counseling Services, geared towards student-based questions and situations.
One in four college students have a diagnosable mental health illness, as reported by The National Alliance on Mental Health Illness. One of these is depression, which especially around exam time and the holidays can become more of an issue.
What are some of the signs of depression?
Mailey: “There’s a few things. One thing to pay attention to is that people start experiencing something called anhedonia, where you start losing interest in things that previously brought you excitement. Maybe it’s really difficult to get yourself out of bed in the morning. Maybe you feel like you just don’t have much energy even after a great night sleep. There is also the idea of the depressed mood-feeling down, low symptoms. You might start feeling really guilty, like ‘Oh I was suppose to meet up with someone but I didn’t call them, I feel like a horrible person.’ So thoughts start turning very negative.
For some people, you might start isolating yourself from your friends. People might be inviting you to do things, but you’re coming up with reasons not to go. Sometimes attention and concentration are really impaired. You might feel like you really can’t focus in class – more so than you’re used to as an average college student. Maybe you’re with your friends and you just seem distracted.”
What causes depression?
Mailey: “That’s normally a pretty complex answer. There are genetic factors that make people more susceptible to experiencing depression. There could be various life circumstances, real or imagined, or a major life event. Maybe you’re going through the transition from high school to college, where you’re adjusting to making friends and also getting homesick. Or maybe you’ve gone through a particularly bad breakup. Sometimes it could be minor hassles or stresses that build up over time. Maybe you’re getting behind on work, and not getting enough sleep or eating the proper nutritious foods. Maybe there are issues between you and a friend that you aren’t really brought to the forefront so you’re carrying those issues. So there could be things happening in your life, with the combination of genetic factors, that make you more likely to experience depression symptoms.”
What might you do if you start recognizing depression symptoms in a friend, and aren’t sure how to approach them about it?
Mailey: “I think stepping outside your comfort zone a little bit and pointing out the things you’ve noticed. Not necessarily jumping to assumptions or conclusions, but just like, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed we’ve been asking you to do things and you just seem to want to hang out on your own, is everything OK?’ You don’t want to jump to conclusions, but just show your concern.”
How about if you recognize the symptoms in yourself, and want to try to take some actions to prevent it from getting worse?
Mailey: “Develop an awareness of yourself and your patterns. Take an inventory. Maybe you say, ‘I haven’t really been spending as much time with friends’ – is that because of the pressure of the semester? And if that’s the case, say ‘I probably need to get out of this hole that I’ve built up and go see some people.’ Maybe you ask yourself, ‘Do I find it hard to get out of bed in the morning?’ Maybe everything is kind of gray in your perception.
Sometimes it’s difficult to catch all of these things because it’s normally a gradual process. Ask yourself: ‘Am I taking care of myself the same?’ ‘Am I usually pretty good about going to the gym and now I find myself making excuses all the time?’ ‘Am I with friends and not really enjoying it all that much?’ If you’re saying yes to a lot of those questions, it’s a good time to check in with someone at counseling services.
One of the things that people can do on their own is get out and do something for a while. It might not be ideal weather right now, but try to get some daylight and sunshine. Be around other people, at least for a little bit. Physical exercise is a great way to deal with some of the lower levels of depression. Talk to someone.”
How might a student handle a situation where going home for Thanksgiving or the holidays causes depressing or anxious thoughts?
Mailey: “Depending on the environment, is it realistic that you have to spend all of your time there? Is it something about the environment that doesn’t feel safe and you can talk to friends or others about it? If family is stressing you out, maybe find friends that live nearby that you can spend time with. If there are there toxic parts of the environment, can I remove myself from that or tolerate it for a period of time?”
How might a student handle a situation where they’ve lost a friend or peer to actions caused by depression, and feel blame for their death?
Mailey: “With someone taking their life, that is ultimately that individual’s choice. It’s very dangerous to get into the “what-if?” game. What if I had hung out when they texted me? What if I had seen the signs? We cannot always predict someone’s perspective. Someone could have sent a hundred texts asking, ‘What are you doing?’ and that had zero meaning behind it besides just wanting to talk or hang out. Unless they’ve specifically told you that they’re feeling that way, it’s difficult to know. If they do tell you, are you in realistic place to give them that help? You most likely need to tell them to see someone immediately where they can get that help.
It’s not your responsibility that they’ve made that decision. They are at a weak point in their life. They’re not a weak person, but there are some serious things going on in their life, but we have no control over that. The person does have the choice. It’s all their own doing – that’s not to be heartless, but that’s kind of the reality of the situation.
If you’re struggling or know of someone that is, go to counseling services or call a crisis line. Sometimes around holidays, those thoughts are triggered. And there are things you can do.”
You can send in your own topics or specific questions for future Ask A Psychologist columns through the Collegian’s social media pages, or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.