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Posted on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 10 a.m.

U-M experts: Brain development, stress put college students at higher risk for depression

By Amy Biolchini

An important stage in brain development in teens hits just as many individual move away from home to college -- which has more mental health ramifications than students may know.

"The stage at which the brain is developing -- it actually puts young people at risk for certain behaviors," said Dr. Donald Vereen, director of the University of Michigan's Substance Abuse Research Center. "The part of the brain that reasons -- the frontal lobe -- is the last to form. In late adolescence, the frontal lobes are not finished forming; there are still connections that need to be made, and kids are put in some of the most stressful situations in their lives."


Students have to cope with a number of stresses at college that come at a time in their brain development that make them more susceptible to certain unhealthy behaviors.

"They move away from home. They have to study and make good grades. They're starting to work. They have to interact with people whose brains didn't develop so well -- and negotiate life with them. It's a wonder that all kids aren't depressed, if you think about it."

Vereen was the keynote speaker on the first day of the University of Michigan's 11th Depression on College Campuses conference Tuesday in Ann Arbor.

About 15 percent of students surveyed recently at the University of Michigan say they're struggling with depression -- a figure that's on par with campuses across the country.

Brains are depressed, not people, Vereen said.

The brain is the organ with the disease, not the person, Vereen said. Depressed brains have less blood flow or glucose than non-depressed brains.

The brain cells of newborn babies have limited connections. As the baby’s brain develops over the first two years of life, the cells grow and increasingly become interconnected as the child learns about the world around them, Vereen said.

“Soon, you have an organized organ,” Vereen said.

With children, brain development is directly correlated with their behavior. Young children that seem to be “everywhere” and easily distracted have brains that rapidly are growing and learning, Vereen said, calling them a "hot, molten volcano" of activity.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, however, brain development changes. Brain cells “prune” themselves according to an individual’s experience - leaving behind the cells that define a person, Vereen said.

The age range also is when depression first develops, Vereen said.

A teenager’s brain negotiates inner selfish needs and wants as it selects from necessary and unnecessary cells, while it also manages outward stimuli, Vereen said.

When a brain can’t negotiate between what’s happening in its immediate environment and the process happening internally, there’s a struggle in the brain, Vereen said.

The inability to deal with those emotions and to calm oneself often leads teenagers to self medicate -- because they’re both curious and testing their boundaries, and because they want to feel better, Vereen said.

“If they’re boys, they don’t sit well with feelings,” Vereen said. “They have to do something to make themselves feel better, and so they often get in trouble.”

Teens often turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.

"There are tremendous stressors in the process that really make young people vulnerable to things like accidents, driving fast in the car, pregnancies and the inability to not soothe oneself -- and it is hard, it is difficult -- might lead to unwise choices. Like trying drugs; trying to fix or re-write, re-correct the brain," Vereen said.

“Drugs take advantage of unformed brains,” Vereen said.

A recent survey of 23,000 individuals between the ages of 11 and 20 years old found that more of them say they have trouble managing anger and report depression issues than use drugs and alcohol illicitly or have unprotected sex.

The survey was conducted under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Salerno, who is the founder of Possibilities for Change.

The organization is a part of the University of Michigan Tech Transfer Venture Acclerator, and developed the Rapid Assessment for Adolescent Preventive Services survey.

About 28 percent of those surveyed reported having trouble managing anger, and 24 percent reported signs of depression.

However, 14 percent of respondents reported using illicit drugs and alcohol, and 13 percent said they’ve had unprotected sex.

The survey was given to 23,000 students in medical practices and school-based health centers across the country using an online form. The 21-question health risk assessment tool took about five minutes to complete.

“With so much attention being paid to the usual suspects of drugs, alcohol, pregnancy and STD prevention, these much more common risks are being overlooked,” Salerno said in a statement. “The real value of a standardized approach to risk assessment with teens is the ability to uncover these hidden dangers that they aren’t likely to bring up - and we, as adults, might not even think to ask.”

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 7:05 p.m.

The Problem of Training: While serving in the armed forces of India, and the Sultanate of Oman, I had the experience of recruiting, and training young people to perform tasks associated with immense physical, and psychological stress. They experience stress from various directions apart from being away from homes, parents, siblings, and friends. I would be surprised if these college students have any reason to experience a higher level, or quantity of stress. The army recruits have to acquire new skills that would determine their chance of surviving on a battlefield. The five-minute survey of young people across the nation reporting some concerns about anger, or depression has no scientific validity to be quoted as a finding in a conference. I may have to submit that the University has no trained personnel to impart training to make the students stress-tolerant, and stress-resistant. At the least, they are making no attempt to guide the students to learn the minimum coping skills that would enable them to deal with stress.


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 9:20 p.m.

Seriously? So...what's the solution? Continue to coddle them? I know, they could live at home and sit on the couch playing video games until they're twenty-five. Or parents and society could start raising their children to become adults that are conscious of their behaviors and actions. Maybe not coddling them for so long, allow them to fail, as that's how people learn, and not react to their whimsical "I'm sad" mantras. Toughen up, maybe?


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 12:28 a.m.

You're so right about the times, I can't disagree. Our children today will need more innovation than ever. It'd be great if we didn't follow one mind set though - education. While it's tough now, it will hopefully improve over time. I am a firm believer that success is measured in the eye of the beholder, not society. If you work hard, make an honest living, it counts for something, right? I have had two jobs since I've been 16. I currently have a Masters and still have a second job because I have a child in college. You do whatever is necessary to get ahead. Depressing at time? Sure. You pick yourself up and keep going. However, I also work in a field where helicopter parents are everywhere. Children alone are pressured into these high stake situations when they're very young. Not because they want to be there, because their parents want them overbooked and to be the absolute best that they can be! Then when the time comes for their little ones to go to school and try to manage small things they freak out, as they're ill equipped. Trust me, it's a true story. I work in education.

Sam S Smith

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 12:15 a.m.

That's one way of looking at it. But given the increased pressure to completely succeed in everything and the lack of jobs, college students ( all young people today) have it way harder today than I did 30 years ago when I was in college. At least when I graduated there were jobs. And if I didn't graduate or continue education, there were jobs I could make a living from!


Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 8:55 p.m.

I'm wondering, what should be done for the kids? Do the depression pass as the brain finishes developing? My own daughter had a very stressful semester in the fall and had really hard time. I asked her to see a counselor at the school which helped. She is studying abroad this semester and I can really tell the difference. She still has class, homework, exams, etc but isn't working right now, no rent to pay, and is only around 7 other students and 2 professors. She became her old, happy self again but I still worry.

Dog Guy

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 4:56 p.m.

My memories of seven years studying at The University of Michigan are not so much of depression as of guilty conscience and hangovers.

Sam S Smith

Wed, Feb 27, 2013 : 4:05 p.m.

This is so sad! It is also so sad that as all of us trying to make it are fighting depression if not experiencing it already. To be honest, 99.9% of people that I know and encounter are depressed!