Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/21/2022
The first time away from home for many, college is where we’re supposed to learn to be ourselves, decide what that should look like and make grand, ambitious plans for the rest of our lives.
Or at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be like.
For a significant part of the college experience, many young adults aren’t in a constant state of euphoric self-discovery. They struggle, they push themselves and sometimes, they suffer.
When suffering in service of a goal, like an “A” grade on an important exam, many of us will say it’s worth it. But there’s another kind of suffering that many students struggle with in college: depression.
People struggling with mental health conditions are often in need of treatment. While proximity to parents or family can help depression sufferers realize they need help, college can be an especially isolating time to struggle.
Spotting the signs of depression in college is crucial to the mental health of those suffering, so whether it’s a friend, family member or yourself, arming yourself with knowledge is key.
Depression is a mood disorder characterized by a recurring pattern of thoughts and persistent feelings best described as “down” or sad.
People experiencing these negative feelings at least once a day, and for at least two weeks may have a depressive mental health disorder.
Which depressive disorder a person suffers from is a more complicated question to answer.
There are several subtypes of clinical depression, ranging from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to something more pervasive like major depression. Depression can vary in its severity, frequency and length of symptoms, and some will have a profoundly potent onset, while other forms may develop imperceptibly over time.
What causes mental health issues and mental health challenges like depression is not fully clear to experts, but the medical community generally understands depression as coming from one or more of a group of risk factors — like environmental and genetic backgrounds, other triggering psychological risks (like a history of depression) or a combination.
The symptoms of depression are the same regardless of whether you’re in high school, college or a retirement home. In college, however, they may be harder to spot.
Away from parents and relatives, unsupervised and mostly socializing with equally inexperienced peers, many college students lack the knowledge of what signs to look for, making it especially hard for a suffering person to get the needed, “Hey, are you okay?” ask from someone close to them.
Depression may look like consistent mood changes.
It can appear as exhaustion and irritability, or as anger or insomnia.
If your friend, child or you yourself start to notice a short temper or general frustration with everything around you, it may be a sign things are trending down.
A depressed person may be hitting the commons too hard — or not at all.
Depressed people will sometimes gain or lose weight rapidly, as eating becomes a treat or an effort not worth making.
The “freshman 15” may indeed just be a result of some lifestyle changes, but if paired with other symptoms, it may be a sign of depression.
Another stomach-related issue may present in depressed people.
College students finding themselves ill with frequency may be reacting not to the food (much as we all remember cafeteria food fondly), but to emotional issues presenting physical symptoms like nausea and other gastric problems.
If someone is becoming more reckless and taking more risks, it might be a sign that depression is affecting their cognitive function.
We’ve all made decisions we regret, and exposure to alcohol and other controlled substances can increase the frequency and severity of these regrets for young adults.
But if substance abuse becomes a pattern, it’s worth bringing attention to.
The ‘80s movie obsession with getting laid in college set an unrealistic standard of how horny people really are while pursuing their degrees — but maybe it’s not too far off.
That said, if someone’s libido goes from a 10 to a zero in a few weeks, chances are, they haven’t matured that rapidly.
Depression can cause a decreased sex drive, and the symptoms can be both mental and physical.
We mentioned altered sleep schedules before, but while scheduling all of your classes for the afternoon might just be good strategy, laying in bed all day and night, sleeping too much or not at all, can all be signs that depression is at play in the form of insomnia or hypersomnia.
That mattress you’re issued has probably seen better days, but if you’re finding yourself at the receiving end of new aches and pains while in college, it could be another symptom of depression rearing its head.
We get it — sounds farfetched, right?
But, believe it or not, depression and pain share the same neurochemical pathways and are both influenced by the same chemicals — serotonin and norepinephrine. If you’re noticing a link between your pain levels and mood, it’s worth bringing it up with a healthcare professional.
So you think someone might have depression this semester — and last semester, and next semester, if they don’t get the help they need. How do you help them? What’s the right way to treat symptoms of depression?
In most cases, resources are available for college students seeking mental health support right on campus.
What this treatment for depression will look like depends on the recommendations of a healthcare provider in the mental health space.
It’s commonly understood that to treat it most effectively, depression requires one or more treatment options, which may include therapy, medication and other treatments.
Some of these may be things that can be worked into daily habits — exercise, dietary changes and losing a little extra weight have countless benefits for your health generally.
Psychotherapy may also be an option.
In these instances, a mental health provider might employ a popular form of talk therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The goal, of course, being to help someone dealing with depression address their emotional reactions, examine their patterns of thought and ultimately begin to change habits in order to retake control of thoughts and moods.
This can be done through university mental health services and counseling centers at school in many cases, though we should mention online counseling is an option.
To treat depression in college students, a mental health professional might also place someone with a depressive disorder on antidepressants for managing imbalances in brain chemicals. Antidepressant medication in conjunction with therapy has been shown to be effective, which means the person suffering from depression may be prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) or other medication alongside therapy.
A final word of warning: many of the symptoms associated with depression are also, well, things that can happen in college. People gain weight, they get stressed or overwhelmed. They feel isolated or sleep in or don’t sleep enough.
The difference between a “typical” college experience and depression may be more subtle in some than others, but when these things begin to affect academic performance or how the person is able to live, meet their goals and generally function, it’s time to get help.
Seeking help is the easy part — there are resources available to anyone who needs them. Accepting that you need help, that’s the challenge.
Whether it’s in college or elsewhere, depression isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s just another hurdle — like an 8 a.m. required course. Meeting it head-on is how you succeed and overcome depression.
Take it from your unofficial mental health RAs here at hims: get help today.
We also have an article on post college graduation depression if you would like to learn more.