University can be host to a wealth of triggers for mental health issues. Away from home and separated from their families, students are faced with the task of juggling their transition to university with personal expectations for academic performance, relationship complications, social problems, financial constraints, and concern about the future. Suffering from depression can make you feel helpless and weak, but is extremely common – one in four people between the ages of 15 and 24 will suffer a mental health problem of some sort – and is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.
What is depression?
Depression is a mood disorder typically characterized by feelings of severe despondency, dejection, hopelessness and/or inadequacy. Depression can be accompanied by a lack of energy, heightened levels of anxiety, and difficulty in maintaining concentration or interest in life. Depression affects everyone differently, but symptoms may include:
- social withdrawal; isolating yourself from friends, avoiding calls from home
- feeling alone or distant from others; feeling like a burden to your loved ones
- feeling overwhelmed, drained, irritable, guilty, worthless, numb, empty, sad, and/or hopeless
- appetite loss or increase; weight loss or gain
- changes in sleeping patterns, trouble sleeping, or insomnia
- recurring thoughts of self-harm or suicide
- losing interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- worrying constantly; experiencing high levels of anxiety, restlessness, stress, or panic attacks
- physical aches and pains
- feeling as if you are functioning in slow motion
- simple tasks take an inordinate amount of time to complete
- reduced ability to concentrate, short term memory loss
- experiencing frequent mood swings
- fatigue, lacking energy or motivation
If you suspect you are suffering from depression, but feel that your circumstances are so bleak that nothing could possibly do anything to improve them, it is imperative to tell yourself otherwise. Learning about a) why you are feeling a certain way and b) how to alter certain aspects of your lifestyle or behaviour in order to feel better is a crucial step in becoming able to cope with depression. I know that the prospect of going out and looking for help seems laughable when the act of actually getting out of bed at all is a Herculean task in itself, but seeking some sort of treatment is the first step in ensuring that your depression doesn’t become debilitating.
If you are convinced that nobody else will understand you, the truth is that you might be right. Everyone may not be able to understand. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who will very much want to try.
Types of treatment
The good news is that there is a plethora of different ways to get help. The hard part is finding the right kind of help for you. People are unique. We have incredibly varied past experiences, family histories, personal beliefs, fears, insecurities, temperaments, and dispositions. We are different, and depression affects each of us differently as a result. Accordingly, the effectiveness of any given coping technique fluctuates from person to person.
If you don’t know where to begin, I recommend looking at the mental health page on your university’s website. This is a private and informative way to research which methods of help you are interested in getting. There will be contact numbers for your university’s mental health centre, which can direct you to find a psychologist or psychiatrist. The difference between the two, you ask? Both psychologists and psychiatrists are mental health specialists who are trained to assess and treat mental illness; however, psychologists provide ‘talk therapy’ to help you alter your behavioural habits and thinking patterns as a primary method of coping with depression, while psychiatrists generally view depression as the result of a bodily abnormality or chemical imbalance in the brain, and prescribe anti-depressant medication as a primary means of treatment.
Talking to a therapist
Showing up to an appointment with the express purpose of divulging intensely personal information to a complete stranger so they can help you overcome your depressive symptoms can be intimidating, to say the least. Try to keep in mind that you are in a confidential space, and that your therapist has the tools to help you – the better they know you, the challenges you face, and how you deal with those challenges, the better they will be able to advise you. Your comfort level will grow over time. Also, your therapist gets to know you by listening to the way you perceive yourself, your relationships, and the events in your life. Talking to a therapist allows you to have an objective opinion from someone whose relationship with you is not that of an acquaintance nor friend nor family, which can be extremely enlightening experience.
Taking time off
Your therapist may recommend deferring your exams, reducing your course load, or taking some time off school. Do whatever you feel comfortable with. Taking a break to relax, reflect, and heal may do a world of good. To prevent slipping into even more of a rut, plan out your leave of absence. Continue with whichever form of therapy you feel comfortable with, keep a regular routine of sleep and exercise, and take up some activities that you didn’t have time to do before. Read. Write. Rest. Paint. Build. Explore. Do anything that reminds you of the beauty in the life we live. Also, as important it is to practice mindfulness and be reflective and thoughtful, it’s important to focus on the outward as well as the inward. Volunteering in the community might give you a sense of routine and purpose.
Mind and body
Your state of physical health can influence your state of mental health all too easily – a good thing if you take care of yourself physically, and a bad thing if you don’t. Follow these tips to ensure you are staying healthy at university!
Coping with any mental health issue is an immense struggle. Overcoming depression is neither quick nor easy, but it is far from impossible. When you are thoughtful about the way you perceive and feel about the events in your life, you become more sensitive and insightful to the world around you, and this will enable you to grow. You are given the chance to examine yourself critically without being critical of yourself. You learn to change the things you can and adapt to the things you cannot. I wish you all the best.
Student Health 101
The Jack Project
Kids Help Phone
Mental Health Commission of Canada
Mind Your Mind
Canadian Mental Health Association
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Teen Mental Health