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Posted on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

U-M experts: Depression a serious struggle for many college students

By Kellie Woodhouse

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.



She had just started college. And she was depressed.

"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.

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 7:52 p.m.

Is it because students figure out that the student loan payments are far bigger than any increases they'll see in wages in the coming years? That they're spending 4 years, and maybe $200,000 of someone's money, just so they can stay in the game, not having any real competitive advantage? I'd be depressed too!


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 7 p.m.

Let's be honest: for many people, life after college is far more stressful and overwhelming than anything experienced during college. If late nights and term paper due dates bring on depression in you, wait until your dealing with mortgages, college funds, job uncertainty, medical bills, young children, and elderly parents (all simultaneously). It makes getting up for that 9 am biology test look as easy as, well, it is. I don't think anyone in these comments or elsewhere is minimizing the seriousness of depression as a disease. It's that, if the stress of being at college triggers it in you, you had better find a way to deal with it quick, because life gets no easier my friend.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 9:28 p.m.

Perhaps the college experience is just the first trigger strong enough to bring out the depression in those that may have a predisposition to it. Maybe?


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 6:46 p.m.

"In high school you could maybe take a day off and sleep in" Wow. No wonder she's so unprepared for the real world, whether it includes clinical depression or not.

John S

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 6:21 p.m.

Does this student know that you also have to show up for work everyday? I get the reason for the article but saying life is tough because of college doesn't support the article. My biggest depression in college came when the keg ran out of the Student Union was sold out of chips and salsa.

Karen Karbowski

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 6:16 p.m.

The most popular comments aren't really popular, it's more like the early bird. Those posters read the article sooner. It would be more accurate and accountable to have a 'down thumb' vote as well. Thanks.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 9:26 p.m.

Just so you aren't too side-tracked by this notion, I'll say that when I posted my comment this morning, there were already 19 comments posted and the third of the "most popular" had 21 thumbs up. So, while there is some truth to your statement, please understand that later posters can surpass the earlier ones. ;-)


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 6:11 p.m.

Spiritualism - SELF AND THE KNOWING-SELF : It is interesting to note that has shared this story under the topics, News and Education. This story pertains to a topic called the well-being of man and is related to health and health care. It is important to recognize that our efforts to support the well-being of man would require correct understanding and knowledge of the real or true man. To know about man,, we can observe the various activities that describe the man. I describe man as a Physical, Mental, Social, Moral, and Spiritual being and this could be verified from observation of the activities and functions performed by the human organism. Man, the Spiritual being is known from the nature of his existence seeking peace, harmony, and tranquility within himself and with others in his environment and community. How man knows himself? The question that I would like to ask is, 'How does the body know the Identity of the man who lives?' If the body knows its Owner, there is a anatomical structure that is associated with the function called 'Knowing-Self'. When we recognize the existence of the Knowing-Self, it would help us to bring the healing and in restoring the spiritual well-being of man that is reflected in his condition called health as an attribute described as Peace, Harmony, and Tranquility. If students in our College Community are depressed, there is an innate, natural mechanism that can uplift their mood and restore the emotional balance that is important for all intellectual effort and work. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:46 p.m.

&quot;Greden and other neuroscientists, phycologists, counselors and advisers convened this week for the school's 10th-annual Depression on College Campuses Conference.&quot; Phycology is the study of algae.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:56 p.m.

.. certain of which can alter moods.

Karen Karbowski

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:32 p.m.

This article is promoting drug abuse and healthcare dependency. Yes, being a new college student is stressful and can lead to depression, especially how it's defined these days. I had a successful mental health private practice and counseled people without prescribing medications. Everyone experiences stress and everyone has coping skills, hopefully, more positive coping skills rather than negative coping skills like the use of legal and illegal medications. Medications are only temporary and are sadly over prescribed. There are literally 100s of positive coping skills, it takes time to figure out what works for you but it is worth the time. In a few years, our country will have no dignity at all, but everyone will have access to all kinds of drugs.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 4:51 p.m.

Depression is an industry. Psychiatrist, psychologists, social workers, drug companies and health systems make big money off of it. There is not incentive for a &quot;cure&quot;. We are a spoiled, self serving, selfish society that expects everything to be easy. That will only get worse.


Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 3:27 a.m.

In some cases but not all. It is dangerous to make a general statement on this. It very well may be over-diagnosed but, I have seen true depression in children who don't know enough to make it up and milk any system. Who have been victim to circumstances that make it more than understandable. Who are lethargic, don't want to participate in life, experience loss of appetite and dangerous weight loss, and wish they were dead at a very young age. It is a serious condition with serious causes that should not be taken lightly or diagnosed lightly.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 8:51 p.m.

Agreed. Doctors and Pharm companies keep pumping out the new &quot;conditions&quot; every week, with a pill to cure it. It doesn't surprise me. We are weak, and we don't deal with adversity well.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 6:08 p.m.

justcurious, by your logic, there's no incentive to cure cancer either.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:39 p.m.

&quot;sources please&quot; ? Oh come on now, it is obvious. I have seen within my own family how this is an industry that just loves to medicate the sick patient and keep them coming back for more and more treatment. It keeps them all , &quot;rolling in the dough&quot;. Good Day


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:09 p.m.

Sources please.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 3:39 p.m.

It took an EXPERT to tell us this???? Wow!


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 3:32 p.m.

The fact that I'm *not* depressed anymore is more of a consequence of sociopathy and masochism, so frankly, I'm surprised the percentage isn't higher.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:39 p.m.

glewe: wait: are you saying that becoming a sociopath and masochist made you less depressed?? If so, you confirm my theory about a number of local rather odd ( and socially inept/destructive) &quot;activists&quot; . or am i totally misunderstanding your post?


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:51 p.m.

I don't know if posting a cross-reference article is permitted, but for the sake of readers who choose to use sarcasm rather than learning something about a subject of which they aren't really informed, I'm posting a link to an article that quite clearly explains the connection between stress and depression. Why is it that when someone cannot have empathy for a situation they haven't personally experienced, the response is sarcasm that the problem must not exist? At least depression is often temporary and can usually be treated with carefully regulated medication. The same cannot be said for ignorance. I am very fortunate as a parent that my younger son, who is in college, recognized within himself a problem with depression and sought treatment last summer. He suffers chronic pain from another issue, but spent four years in marching band, studying music and two minors, holding a leadership position in a service fraternity (that included travel to out-of-state meetings.) Many would have had no clue...but he recognized the signs of shutting down within himself, particularly when his passion for marching came to abrupt end because he could no longer handle the physical rigor. I would like to suggest that if you aren't educated on a subject, you refrain from public display of your ignorance, and instead resolve within yourself to become better informed. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 4:05 p.m.

I debated on whether or not to add this, but as a comparison, I'll say that my older son, and his wife had their first child at 24 years of age. My son was working and was in college, my daughter-in-law is an RN. Their son was born prematurely, with Down syndrome, a significant heart defect and a feeding issue which required tube feeding only. Once released from the NICU, my son had to drop out of school and quit his job to care for his son full time. The baby was hospitalized with pneumonia, and then suffered from congestive heart failure three times before having open-heart surgery at six months old. THAT was followed two different staph infections which required a total of another 3.5-4 weeks of hospitalization. Stress? Major....but in this son's case, it hasn't led to depression. (He's an awesome dad with an awesome, healthy, happy and growing son!) There are some here that seem to think students are whining about stress. Though worded differently, this article clearly indicates 83% of female students, and 88% of male students will never experience depression.... but I'm &quot;guessing&quot; 100% experience stress in some form. Please be more accepting of those for whom depression is a reality.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:57 p.m.

This is a very nice post. Congratulations to you and your son! I fear that your post may get lost among the self-ordained experts posting on this site. Thank you.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:08 p.m.

I don't even bother reading the articles anymore. I just go straight to the *real* experts in the comments section!


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:02 p.m.

Judging by some of the posts here, it is clear that people still truly don't understand depression. Depression is not stress, and depression doesn't mean that you're sad. Speaking from extremely painful experience, depression hit me really hard in college and I had absolutely no clue how to deal with it. In fact, it wasn't until years later that I even understood that I had been struggling with depression in college. I am so happy to see that the U of M is doing something to understand this issue better and to help these students. Please don't trivialize the very real struggle that some of these students are experiencing. Snarky comments about life being hard or the issues with US government policy don't help. Instead, please take an extra moment to learn what depression really is, and try to understand, and maybe even help. Thanks.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:46 p.m.

Depression is real, and one's view of the world, of reality, and your place in it can play a big role in the state of ones mental health. What is taught and what is believed as far as a world view and why we are here on this planet are very relevant factors, albeit not the only ones.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:42 p.m.

@cinnabar7071: Quite a &quot;cute&quot; comment which makes it clear that you really have no interest in learning any more about this issue other that the &quot;expertise&quot; which you have accumulated over your lifetime. Since your goal is to simply trivialize this issue further, my responding to you with what I had done would fall on &quot;deaf&quot; ears. Am I using enough &quot;quotes&quot; for you? Good luck to you. I'm glad you know everything already.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 1:42 p.m.

I think they have &quot;Depression&quot; confused with stress.........Life is hard!


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:15 p.m.

Peter yes I feel &quot;Depression&quot; is real. But stress isn't depression and thats what is being discribed. Example &quot;In college there's already a million different stressors and a million different things to worry about. Everything piles up,&quot; Thats a description of life, wait till she has kids to take care of too.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2 p.m.

Why did you put depression in quotation marks? Do you not think it's real or something?

Geoff Larcom

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 1:34 p.m.

This is a terrific piece that helps erase the stigma about a serious problem. Depression is a condition that can be treated, but it's so vital to seek help. And college offers a special, new cluster of challenges that can clearly spark depression. Here's to the work of John Greden and his colleagues in advancing our level of understanding.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 12:13 p.m.

Dear supposed U-M Experts: Depression a struggle for people of all ages. Good Day


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 1:28 p.m.

Dear snoopdog: The article is about college students. Good Day


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 12:19 p.m.

However, for college students away from home for the first time, they typically experience symptoms of depression while at the same time away from anyone who knows them well enough to recognize what is happening, or even to care.