U-M experts: Depression a serious struggle for many college students
Hailey MacVicar had just moved to a new place. She didn't know anyone, nothing was familiar and her workload was piling up, getting more difficult by the day.
"In college there's already a million different stressors and a million different things to worry about. Everything piles up," the University of Michigan freshman said. "In high school you could maybe take a day off and sleep in, but you can't take a day off here because you miss too much.
"It's really never ending."
During her first semester of college, MacVicar was anxious, lonely, sad and lethargic, she says. She would think to herself: 'I don’t want to do anything,' 'I don’t care about anything,' and 'there's not really a point.'
What MacVicar failed to see, at first, was that she wasn't alone.
Throughout U.S. colleges 17 percent of women and 12 percent of men struggle with depression. In 2007, U-M Public Health professor Daniel Eisenberg spearheaded a survey of depression among students at the Ann Arbor campus. That survey found that 15 percent of U-M students were struggling with depression, a number that's on par with the roughly 70 campuses Eisenburg has surveyed.
"It’s common, it can be severe, and it’s stigmatized," said Dr. John Greden, executive director of the U-M Depression Center.
Greden said that when students go to college their stress level increases as they encounter college-level coursework, they often begin partying and drinking and their sleep cycle becomes "notoriously chaotic." Fifteen percent of students come to campus already on a medication for a mental disorder, he added.
"All of that starts hitting and they start struggling."
Greden and other neuroscientists, phycologists, counselors and advisers convened this week for the school's 10th-annual Depression on College Campuses Conference. Their goal: Disseminating and discussing ways to decrease the incidents of depression and suicides at colleges.
"We haven’t really mastered, conquered, eliminated the problems yet," Greden told his fellow practitioners at the start of the conference. "We have an awful lot to do."
Each year, one in 10,000 college students commit suicide. According to Eisenburg, U-M is on par with that average.
Although suicide isn't discussed heavily at the conference, the seminar originally spurred from the suicide of a student at U-M in 2000.
"We were trying to address what happened (and we) learned from students that they didn't know where to go when they were depressed and that there was an awful lot of stigma," Greden recalls.
Since 2000, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses have lost much of their stigma. U-M, for example, now has more than a dozen groups and services for students who struggle with symptoms.
Coping with depression
Like MacVicar, U-M Dearborn freshman Leanne Barson struggled with depression when she entered college this year. She was anxious and struggled with headaches and stomach aches often, she says.
Barson recalled one of her firsts tests at college, a sociology exam she studied for extensively.
"I didn't have a life my first month in college. I studied for this test," she said. "On the test I got an 'E' and I'm usually a straight-A student."
Barson was shocked. She went home and cried about her score, immediately doubting her abilities. Those thoughts spiraled into greater concerns and soon she was in throes of depression, she says.
"It was just a whole chain of problems," she recalls.
MacVicar recalls a similar experience.
"Near the end of last semester when it was getting near crunch time. I had a million papers and was worrying about finals," she said. "The depressed feeling was getting worse and worse and I was getting more anxious."
That sort of spiraling is not uncommon, experts say.
"Thoughts... really spiral," U-M psychology doctoral candidate Steven Brunwasser told a group of counselors, researchers and advisors during the conference. "Eventually you can get to 'I’m a terrible person.'"
The negative thoughts can lead to negative social interactions, added Swarthmore College psychologist Jane Gillham.
“What happens over time with a downward spiral is because I’m starting to withdraw I don’t get invited to social stuff,” she said. “I inadvertently create the negative events in my life.”
One of the keys to thwarting depression, according Brunwasser and Gillham, is identifying destructive thinking styles —such as pessimism and perfectionism— and adapting core beliefs and behaviors.
"Consider alternatives: How else can I look at a situation?" Gillham offered.
Behavior changes, like exercising, journaling and drinking less and socializing more, can also alleviate anxiety and depression.
For MacVicar, her mental health began improving once she realized she was far from alone.
"Most of my close friends they're going through the same things I am. They’re not really going through depression, but they’re dealing with the same kinds of stress," she said. "It made me think that maybe I’m not that different. Maybe I’m not that weird."
MacVicar says that while she still struggles with depression, her symptoms have lessened. Part of that is because she's seeking out coping mechanisms and positive experiences, like attending the depression conference.
She's planning to get involved with a campus organization soon.
"You have to push yourself to put yourself out there more," said Barson, who recently got a job and says her friendships at work have helped alleviate her feelings of loneliness and depression.