Across the United States and around the world, September marks the time when millions of young people begin one of the greatest adventures of their lives — their freshman year in college.
Amid the excitement of meeting new friends, diving into classes, tossing Frisbees on the green and getting swept up in the social whirl, however, many first-year students experience bouts of depression and anxiety that can leave them — and their parents — grasping for answers.
While every student is different, there are some common things each one can do that may help:
Look for the signs
Nearly two-thirds of college freshmen report feeling “occasionally” or “frequently” depressed during their first year of school, and nearly all (94.5 percent) said they felt overwhelmed, according to the national survey conducted each year by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.
While a brief spell of homesickness is common for first-year students, lingering struggles may reveal a more serious problem, according to the Mayo Clinic. The signs include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, tearfulness or hopelessness
- Irritability and angry outbursts that don’t fit the situation
- Sleep troubles, including insomnia or sleeping through the day
- Changes in appetite — leading to rapid weight gain or weight loss
- Uncharacteristic academic struggles
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Thoughts of self-harm and suicide.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
The causes of serious depression and anxiety are as varied as the students who suffer from them. They include leaving things with which they are familiar: home, school and friends; struggling with whether to drink heavily or go too far sexually; contending with increased academic pressure and fewer support systems; and feeling anxious about their future in an economically uncertain world.
Colleges and universities have mental health staff members who are well-versed in dealing with such challenges. While their resources are sometimes limited, they can refer students to nearby counselors, clinics and crisis centers. Those professionals can help with measures including:
- Talk therapy, to help young people sort out the root causes of their malaise and chart a path to improvement
- Antidepressant medications often require several weeks to take effect, but they prove effective for about 70 percent of patients
- Newer remedies, such as ketamine, which studies show can provide immediate relief for patients who haven’t found it anywhere else
- Suicide prevention programs — if students are harboring thoughts of suicide, they should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). It’s staffed 24 hours a day and can also be a resource for concerned family members and friends looking for a way to help.
Take care of yourself
Students struggling with depression, or hoping to avoid slipping into it, can take positive steps to improve their mental health. They include:
- Regular exercise. Playing sports, taking walks, going to a dance class — all can result in the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals
- Better sleep. Good sleep hygiene is one of the best ways to lift your spirits. That means getting to bed earlier, avoiding video stimulation (that means you, Facebook, Instagram and Grand Theft Auto) before trying to sleep, and getting a sleep mask to shut out the light from your roommate’s desk lamp or video screen
- Good nutrition. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.” That applies to mental as well as physical health; trade in some of those burger, fries and pizza dinners for healthy trips to the salad bar and you’ll be surprised by the mental health benefits
- Cut down on the coffee, booze and marijuana. Especially when consumed in large quantities, those substances can muddy your mind and your moods.
- Get involved. Students who join college organizations, do volunteer work and undertake internships in the community feel more connected — not only to others, but to their own best selves.