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ISSUE 116 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/8/2002

Acknowledging severity of depressive disorders

By Betsy Pedersen
Staff Writer

Friday, November 8, 2002

Depression affects over 19 million American adults annually, college students included, making depression a prevalent issue on college campuses nationwide. According to a recent national college health survey, one in ten college students have been diagnosed with depression.

Threats to Mental Well-Being

On campuses across the United States, college students are feeling overwhelmed, sad and hopeless. Some are so depressed that they are often unable to function. According to the Campaign for Americas Mental Health, there are several threats to college students mental well-being. The statistics speak for themselves. Anxiety levels among college students have been rising since the 1950s. In 2000, nearly seven percent of college students reported experiencing anxiety disorders within the previous year. Women are five times more likely than men to have anxiety disorders. Eating disorders also threaten students well-being. Five to ten million women and one million men are affected by eating disorders. Not surprisingly, the highest rates of eating disorders occur in college-aged women. Severe depression can lead to suicide, which is the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24. Suicide is the second leading killer among college students. In general, college students are feeling increasingly overwhelmed and stressed. A recent U.C.L.A. survey reported that more than 30 percent of college freshman feel overwhelmed a great deal of the time. About 38 percent of college-aged women feel frequently overwhelmed.

Common Stressors

It is no small wonder that some students are depressed. The average student faces a number of common stressors. These stressors include, but are not limited to: academic demands, being independant in a new environment, changes in family relations, financial responsibilities, changes in social life, exposure to new people and temptations, awareness of sexual identity and orientation and preparing for life after graduation. Stress and depression are not synonymous. It is possible to be stressed, but not depressed. In fact, depression can occur for no apparent reason. In addition to stress, genetic factors are a strong contributor to depression. People can develop depression with or without a family history of it.

Common Myths About Depression

Many people falsely believe that depression is not really an illness. In reality, the brain can get sick, just as any organ can. Chemicals in the brain regulate how people think, feel, and act, and when these chemicals are imbalanced clinical depression can result. Contrary to popular belief, people who are depressed do not have to appear to be sad. There are actually many different symptoms associated with depression and sadness is just one of them. Many depressed people hide their feelings of anger, worry, panic, anxiety, or sadness with a smile. Depression is a serious illness, although many people do not realize it. Untreated depression can lead to a variety of issues, including financial problems, substance abuse, family problems, problems in school, or suicide. Most people with depression can be helped. In 90 percent of cases, depression can be effectively treated with a combination of medication and therapy.

Types of Depression

Three types of depression occur most commonly: major depression, dysthymia and bipolar illness. Major depression is manifested by a combination of symptoms that interfere with any or all aspects of life. Symptoms of major depression include: sadness, anxiety, fatigue, decreased energy, loss of interest in usual activities, sleep disturbances, appetite and weight changes, feelings of hopelessness and pessimism, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, irritability or excessive crying and chronic aches and pains not caused by another physical condition. A second type of depression, dysthymia, is less intense than major depression. Dysthymia involves long-term, chronic symptoms that are less severe, but still prevents a person from functioning at his or her full ability and from feeling well. The third common type of depression is bipolar illness, which is sometimes called manic-depressive illness. In bipolar illness cycles of depression alternate with cycles of elation and increased activity.

How to Recognize Depression

Depression is not always easy to recognize. While it is completely normal to have some signs of depression part of the time, experiencing five or more symptoms for two weeks or longer should be of concern.

Getting Help

College can be challenging for a number of reasons. Students find themselves alone in a strange place, without the comfort of friends and family. Adapting to the pressures of new classes and new faces can be difficult. Kate Sloterdyk 04, agreed. She said, I think depression might be higher on campuses with more academic and social pressures. The National Mental Health Association offers a few ideas that can help students manage feelings of pressure and stress. Suggestions include: make better use of time, carefully plan work and sleep schedules, join an extracurricular activity, make a friend, try relaxation methods and take personal time each day. If the above techniques do not help to manage feelings of pressure and stress, professional help is yet another alternative. Sometimes feelings of constant stress are more than just difficulty adjusting to life changes. Assistance may be sought from the school counseling service, student health center, a doctor or a mental health professional. Sloterdyk said, I think that colleges that have counseling centers to help people are better off for offering those services. St. Olaf has a confidential counseling center and complimentary services are available to all students. College offers a variety of new experiences and challenges, which can be not only exciting, but also stressful. They can create feelings of great sadness. When this sadness persists, it may signal depression. Once recognized, depression can be effectively treated. Depression is not a passing mood. It can affect not only the body, mood, thoughts, and behavior, but also eating and sleeping habits, how one feels and thinks about things, the ability to work and study, and ones interactions with other people. With the winter months fast approaching, seasonal depression can set in. But it doesnt have to. Although its important to remember that depression isnt always preventable, it is possible to take the controllable steps necessary to keep it from happening.

– Information gathered from David Holmes’ “Abnormal Psychology.”

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