At the annual University of Michigan Depression Center "Depression on College Campuses" conference, Amelia Arria’s talk highlighted a serious omission from my previous blog: Lesson for College Freshman, Top Ten for Mental Health. Dr. Arria, from the University of Maryland School of Public Health, spoke about the impact of alcohol and illegal drugs (particularly marijuana) on mental illness, academic performance, “stopping out” (taking a prolonged absence from school) and future employment. The results are what could be expected, as consumption of alcohol or other drugs (AOD) increased, problems increased, especially for those prone to mental illness.
I realized my roller coaster relationship with alcohol had been omitted from my top ten list. My first major depressive episode occurred my freshman year of college at the University of Notre Dame, something I’ve attributed to transitional stress, college major anxiety, Seasonal Affect Disorder, an injury that kept me from running and a romantic break up. I forgot to mention those first two years I drank. A lot. I never drank during the week, but on Friday and Saturday nights I slammed beers, in some strange form of women’s lib that encouraged me to believe I could match men twice my size drink for drink. I thought of myself as a smart, tough girl like Karen Allen’s Marion who chugged vodka with the evil Russian in Raiders of the Lost Ark . My drinking never ended like the movies, oftentimes closing with an unglamorous dance with a commode on Saturday mornings.
In the past, I attributed my college bounce back from depression to exercise, subjects that piqued my curiosity and the healing agent of time. In the early 80s, antidepressants weren’t available, and despite the fact my mother was a degreed counselor (specializing in addictive behavior, ironically) I never did any psychotherapy for that episode.
As Arria spoke, I realized a major difference in my last two years of college. Those two years I dated someone who was a recovered alcoholic. The fact that he recognized his problem and took action impressed me then, but even more today. How many college students do you know have the emotional maturity to weather college stone-cold sober? Now sober dorms and recovery programs exist on many college campuses, but not in 1980. Out of consideration for him, I drank less, if at all. Looking back, I have little doubt my reduction of drinking played as an important role as exercise and a cirriculum that inspired me in reaching a state of wellness.
Alcohol is a depressant. The idea that a depressant might set off depression isn’t rocket science. With heavy doses of depressants along with lack of sleep, separation from traditional support groups, a pizza diet, reduced exercise and encounter with a first major life failure (be it romantic or academic) it’s no surprise that freshman year of college is a typical time for a first depressive break. Some of this is unavoidable life experience, but a little brain science education can lessen the downfall.
In retrospect, I got lucky. I stumbled upon a boyfriend who changed my social framework, and my brain escaped the mire of depression. My husband (who also drinks very little) accuses me of having team of guardian angels who have protected me through life from a series of near-misses. He’s probably right.
As our children go off to college, I’m arming them with facts as well as prayers. Alcohol and other illegal drugs pack an unexpected punch that can magnify depression and cause a host of other problems. My college-bound teens might get decked with the glamorized-abusive-drinking-as–essential-for-college message, but not because of my silence. I’ve encouraged them to duck, to dare to be different. Abuse of alcohol and other illegal drugs cause a spike, then plummet in dopamine that strains even the most stable of brains. For those with a genetic predisposition, the ride is dangerous. The roller coaster downside isn’t worth the trip.
For more information about Struck by Living or speaking engagements, check out my Struck by Living website. I have revised my Top Ten Tips for College Mental Health in my current blog posted on the site.