Q: How does a college student deal with depression? Please don’t say contact the Counseling Center.
There are so many reasons freshman year is a difficult time for everyone, and the most important thing to realize is that it’s not easy for anyone. But just by recognizing that you’re hurting, that your struggle is valid, that you are taking steps to deal with what you’re going through and move forward shows just how strong you are.
Many freshmen — myself included, back in the day — start college fresh off of the happiest year of their life. Senior year of high school is all about bonding and basking in your years-in-the-making friendships for an epic, final chapter of memory-making. You start college with the mindset that you must immediately replicate not only those friendships that took years to build, but also the void of leaving behind close family members, and that unrealistic expectation is a set-up for disappointment. Social media and the notorious fear of missing out, better known as FOMO, all make it seem like your fellow freshmen are having so much more fun or are so much farther along in their friendships and relationships than you are, which only adds to the pain.
Of course, there are so many other sources for mental health struggles among college freshmen. You might be used to excelling in your classes and other pursuits, and if you’re not able to live up to your standards for yourself in your college classes or extracurricular activities, it’s natural to react negatively. And there may be many other personal, individual factors for everyone. Depression is much more common than you might believe. More than 36 percent of college students report suffering from it, which means the number is probably higher even than that. You’re definitely not alone, if that’s any comfort.
But of course, just because depression is common among freshmen, don’t think that doesn’t make you and your experiences unique. Everyone is different, and has different needs. That being said, here are some ideas you may want to consider trying.
Being honest and just talking about your problems, or saying the words “I have depression” aloud isn’t easy for anyone, and certainly not for those just getting acclimated to a new environment. Don’t expect conversations about mental health to be easy, but know that you’ll be stronger and healthier for engaging in them.
For starters, arrange a time to talk to your RA. RAs definitely understand and recall what it was like to be a freshman, and while they’re also full-time students and may not always be able to make time, they can have honest conversations with you about their own experiences, and are trained to talk about your options with you. Some students find mentors, role models and even lifelong friends in their RAs. If that’s too idealistic, at the very least, it’s important to have someone to check in on you and see how you’re feeling every now and then. Either way, just talking about your feelings, thoughts and experiences with someone who may have gone through it before you will relieve all kinds of stress, and could be enlightening for you — to explain your experiences in words and in a manner that invites understanding always is.
Before going further, take a step back and assess if your depression or other mental health ailments are affecting your academic performance. If they are and if a particular class is stressing you out, arrange a time to talk to your professor about what you’re going through. Believe it or not, most professors want nothing more than to see you succeed and will be supportive and accommodating. It’s important for them to know if and why you’re not able to do your best in their class, or if you might need some extra time, help and support. In addition to talking to your professor, also arrange to talk to your academic advisor about options that may be more fitting for your mental health.
And now, as predictable and perhaps cliche as this last piece of advice maybe, it’s important that you try talking to your friends — whether they go to USC or not. It’s hard to open up, but you never know who might be able to relate to your experiences. Tell your friend that you don’t expect them to have the answers, but that listening to you, checking up on you now and then and just being mindful and aware of what you’re going through would make a big difference. Based on your background or where you’re from, there might be great stigma associated with mental health; again, don’t be hard on yourself for feeling nervous, guilty or even embarrassed in talking about what you’re experiencing. You can’t help how you feel, and you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. If a friend is meant to be in your life, they’ll be compassionate and respectful, and if not, you are better off without them.
Lastly, as someone who has gone to Engemann seeking counseling services and experienced firsthand its limited resources, I understand why you sought advice about other options. But in addition to all of these ideas, if you are comfortable doing so, I still highly recommend completing an online form, doing the phone intake and seeing how you feel when counseling services finally become available some weeks later. In the intake alone, you are asked questions that help just by setting you up to try to explain your feelings and situation in words; this can be eye-opening for you.
If you’re not quite ready to talk to anyone just yet, don’t worry — we all move at our own paces and just being mindful and self-aware is a huge first step. Reflect on your life and what you enjoy or don’t enjoy each day by journaling. If that’s not an option due to your busy schedule, meditate in bed before sleeping. Try to engage in neutral activities that clear your mind, such as coloring books, drawing, taking walks or knitting. Think of an old childhood hobby, or anything you once or think you might be able to enjoy doing for fun, and to satisfy no one else but you; try and make time for this activity. Making time is easier said than done, but it could make all the difference, so at least give it a shot. And, of course, practice self-care: Each day take a step back to see how you’ve been eating, how much sleep you’re getting and so on and so forth. It’s hard to achieve good mental health without putting good physical health first.
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