By Alexandra Dupont, third-year PhD student, UCLA
College is a time of challenges, such as moving away from home, living with someone new, taking difficult classes, and managing life on your own. Along with these challenges come emotional highs and lows. But how do you know what feelings are normal? When do those bad moods signal a clinical disorder? How do you take charge of your own emotional well-being? “There have been too many times to count when I have gone through a rough patch,” says Mimi Roukoz, a senior at the University of San Diego in California. “I always try to remember that it will get better. If I had to give a student advice, I would tell him or her that nerves are natural; they are not the only ones; and we have all been there.”
Emotional Highs and Lows Are Normal
Kristian Sorenson, a sophomore at University of Oregon in Eugene, found that “the biggest shock of college was feeling completely alone. There was no one there but me. It was really overwhelming at first.” Feelings of isolation and sadness are common during times of transition and change. Ups and downs are a part of growth. They help you build resiliency. Sometimes, however, life events are so overwhelming and painful they disrupt your daily life. For some students, their “feeling down” can be a very serious issue, possibly a sign of clinical depression. The Healthy Minds Study, an annual, national survey that examines mental health issues among college students, found that 13.8% of undergraduates screened positive for a diagnosable depressive disorder.
Am I Clinically Depressed?
Depression goes beyond just feeling temporarily sad or stressed out. Sadness is a temporary feeling, while depression can go on for weeks, months, or years, and someone suffering from depression can have serious trouble coping with everyday activities. Dr. George M. Slavich, an assistant professor of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles, says, “If your mood is impacting your job, social life, or schoolwork, or if you’re feeling down and can’t get yourself to feel better, then it’s probably time to see a professional, at least for an evaluation.”
A diagnosis of depression can be triggered by stressful life events that involve significant changes, such as failing a class or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Stressors in college life like academic pressures, odd sleep patterns, and instability in relationships can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues. Unhealthy eating habits can also contribute to depression. depression is treatable. The student health center at your school is often a great resource. Health and counseling professionals there can help match you to the appropriate treatments. “Seeing a therapist as soon as you notice that you’re not feeling well is the best way to limit the impact that depression will have on your life,” says Dr. Slavich.
Depression in Women vs. Men
Women have higher rates of clinical depression than men. This could be because women truly experience depression more frequently than men, but physicians and psychologists may be missing key signs of depression in men because men are less likely to seek professional help, and they express their depression differently. Women who are depressed usually feel sad and emotional. Men generally feel more aggressive, irritable, and hostile. Men talk more about physical symptoms like how tired they are, or how much their head and stomachs hurt.
How to Improve
Being emotionally and mentally healthy is positive for all aspects of our lives, including grades and relationships. Be proactive in your everyday life and seek professional support when you need it. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, spending time with trusted family and friends, setting realistic goals, staying healthy, and doing activities that you enjoy are all tools that combat feelings of depression.
Kate Wright, a sophomore at University of Redlands in California, suggests opening up to new experiences. “College has definitely been an adjustment, but I found a group of friends, and they became my family,” says Wright. But you can’t force it; you have to be true to who you are. Connect with friends and family who give you energy and lift you up.
Set SMART Goals
Setting smart goals will help you feel in control of your life. Some use SMART as an acronym to define these goals. These goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Finishing a project and being on top of your classwork can help you feel like you are in charge of your future success.
Get to Bed and Beware the Booze
Healthy habits are essential for good emotional health. Eat well. Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol wellbeing? Sleep can affect your mood and ability to concentrate, so try to get 7 to 9 hours of consistent sleep each night and avoid “all nighters.”
Sweat It Out
Exercising is a great way to boost your mood and relieve stress. Find fun ways to be physically active during the day. Try a new sport. Join a club team. Organize a basketball game. Bike or walk to class. The U.S. Department of Health Services recommends you aim for 30 minutes of physical activity every day.
Sometimes it can be hard to find any way to be happy when you’re depressed, and only professional medical help may be the answer. But doing things you love can help maintain overall positive mental health. What makes you happy? To figure this out, join new clubs, volunteer, attend campus events. By exploring what your college has to offer, you will find things that interest you and that you enjoy doing.
Alexandra Dupont is a PhD student in health psychology at UCLA. Her research explores how
psychological and social factors influence physical health. She is also co-president of the student
group Psychology in Action, check out: www.psychologyinaction.org.