While "college depression" is not an official diagnosis, developing depression is not uncommon among college students. When your student is home for the holidays, they may be exhibiting signs of depression, including excessive sleeping, changes in appetite, low mood, and a loss of interest in activities once previously enjoyed. Your student's grade report may come as a surprise, especially if the grades are significantly lower than what you are used to seeing.

When it comes time to return to school, your student may tell you they would rather stay home - school is not what they thought it would be, they have no friends, they don't know what to do with their life. How do you know whether this is just "homesickness" or something else?

College students face many life stressors: adjusting to living away from home, academic demands, living with roommates, building new friendships, managing time and money, and more. How the student reacts to such changes can give you clues on what might be going on.

Students who are "homesick" may miss their family and friends, but will rebound quickly after checking in with those they miss or after a brief visit home. Talking with family and friends usually leads to appropriate problem-solving and the student feeling better about their situation.

Students with depression have symptoms that persist and interfere with normal activities, such as:

  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
  • Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixation on past failures, or self-blame when things aren't going right
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
  • Crying spells for no apparent reason
  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches

These symptoms result in students who are more likely to have impaired academic performance, smoke, and engage in risky behaviors such as drinking excessively, using substances, and having unprotected sex.

If you suspect your college student is depressed, here are some tips to address it:

  1. Be supportive in your feedback regarding what you are noticing. When talking with your student, give specific examples of what behaviors you are observing, and explain why you are concerned.
  2. Normalize your student's experience. Struggling in college is not uncommon. Let them know help is available and they can feel better.
  3. Listen to what your student is willing to share, and be patient if they deny that anything is wrong. Leave the door open to discuss it at a later time.
  4. Encourage your student to see a professional. Most college campuses have a student counseling center, where sessions are low-cost or free. Your student might benefit from an assessment by a counselor to determine whether therapy, medication, or other resources can help.
  5. Encourage your student to avoid making major decisions, such as changing majors or taking on a job or internship, until they are feeling better. Instead, suggest they get involved in activities they might enjoy, or to do other things that will lift their mood, such as exercise.
  6. Do not offer to step in and "save" your student from any source of their distress (bad professor, sticky roommate situation, wrong major, etc.) Encourage your student to use resources available on campus or within the community to address issues themselves. This builds mastery and a sense of empowerment.
  7. Clarify what you are and are not willing to do. Sometimes students think their parent(s) will step in to fix issues, or will allow them to come home if they fail in school. Be clear in your expectations and what the consequences will be if your student chooses not to comply.

Left untreated, depression can get worse and lead to substance abuse, risky behaviors, and even suicide. If treated appropriately, depression can be overcome, and your student can have a successful college experience.

About the Author

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda works as a therapist in private practice in Durham, North Carolina.

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