Transitioning to College: Depression

Transitioning to college and taking that great leap into adulthood is often thought of as one of the most exciting times of a young person’s life.  This coming of age story is systematically told time and time again as an adventurous, wild & fun romp in countless movies and nostalgic musings.  For many college freshmen, waving goodbye to their parents as they settle into their dormitory is a moment of unabashed excitement over their newfound freedom.  However, for some students, it’s anything but:  in a 2011 nationwide survey the American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment (ACHA–NCHA) found that 30% of college students at 2- and 4-year institutions reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some time in the past year.

Sites like TransitionYear.org have done a lot to raise awareness of the general issues surrounding the transition to college, but despite this many parents are caught by surprise when emotional issues occur with their own children.

“College depression” isn’t a clinical diagnosis. Instead, college depression is a form of an adjustment disorder — a type of stress-related mental illness — or depression. “Tendencies toward depression may not manifest consistently, and the high-stress environment and coping with separation from family and friend is often the perfect storm to cause depression to emerge,” says Dr. Richard Kneip, psychologist with Great Lakes Psychology Group, an emotionally focused counseling center with three locations in Michigan. “Dealing with these changes during the transition from adolescence to adulthood can trigger or unmask so-called college depression in some young adults.”

During the transition to college it’s absolutely crucial for parents to monitor their child’s attitude and behavior for changes indicating there’s a problem. This can be difficult to do, especially from afar, but the key is to look for unusual or inexplicable changes in your child’s behavior.

Signs and symptoms that a student may be experiencing college depression include:

  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Irritability, frustration, agitation or restlessness
  • Withdrawal from activities and interests
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
  • Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Trouble with thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide

In order to prepare your child for the transition to college, it’s wise to spend time talking with them about their goals and the potential pitfalls they may encounter.  Students transitioning to college face many challenges, pressures and anxieties that can cause them to feel overwhelmed. They may be living on their own for the first time and feeling homesick. They may also be adapting to a new schedule and workload, adjusting to life with roommates, and figuring out how to belong. They may no longer have their social safety net of friends, or teachers that are able to devote large amounts of time to their individual understanding of a subject.

Parents who bring up the topic of mental and emotional health before the transition to college may make it easier for their children to open up to them about future problems. Parents should share the fact that there’s no stigma or weakness in seeking counseling for depression or anything else, and should stress the positive aspects of counseling as a tool to get help if he or she ever needs it.

Helping your child become accustomed to the challenges they’ll face in college will help them from feeling overwhelmed by the transition. Encourage your child to visit the campus and talk to other students, peer counselors or faculty about what to expect and where to turn for support. Review methods that may help them avoid depression. If your college-bound child has a history of depression, talk to your child’s doctor about what kind of counseling options might best help your child with the transition to college. In addition, help your child become familiar with campus counseling resources.

If your child is experiencing distress or showing signs of depression as the start of college nears, you should schedule an appointment at Great Lakes Psychology Group.  Remember, depression symptoms may not get better on their own, and getting treatment at the earliest sign of a problem can help prevent college depression from worsening.