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Freshman Year of College: Danger Zone for Mental Health

Freshman year of college, a peak time for a first depressive episode

Over the past year, I've spoken to numerous high school groups about mental health for teens. Parents are concerned about their children's future college experience, as they should be. Freshman year in college is a common time for a first major depressive break. If I look at my Top Six list for mental health maintenance (, the timing of that first depressive episode shouldn't be a surprise. The first thing to lapse in college are the "big three": sleep, exercise and nutrition. Often a college freshman is surrounded by people who don't know his or her "normal" behavior, so they don't feel comfortable advising a slower pace or a break. Plus, kids are surrounded by kids with immense pressure, but little life perspective. With all these factors, a genetic predisposition for depression has a perfect environment to thrive.

Last week I returned to my alma mater, The University of Notre Dame. I spoke about my first depressive break, my freshman year at Notre Dame. My first semester at ND seemed a repeat of my strong high school performance. I made the dean's list, had a boyfriend, was directed and sure of where I was going. By December of that year (1978), I knew I didn't want to be pre-med. I wasn't sure of what I wanted to be, perhaps a writer? My father insisted I major in business so I could get a job. In February, my steady boyfriend broke up with me. About the same time I got shin splints and could not run. I stopped eating; stopped sleeping. For the first time in my life, I skipped classes and failed to do my class work. My grades plummeted.

As so often happens when someone is depressed, I got involved with a person who fueled my abnormal behavior instead of pulling me back to my normal. There was a wiry, towering young man who liked to do magic shows at LaForture, the student union. At his request, I became his assistant. I have strong memory of this young man describing how he liked to control crowds, control the minds of the people in the crowd. With my vivid imagination (and with no sleep), I became convinced that he was possessed and he was trying to possess me. I ran out into the quad between Kavanaugh and Breen Phillips and knelt in the snow, screaming for someone to help. Now I am fairly certain these screams where only in my mind. When no one came, I visited my rectress who said a few Hail Mary's with me and told me to get some rest.

I ploughed through the rest of the semester, despite my pleas to my parents to let me leave school. At the time, I thought my parents were being cruel. Now I realize without the structure of school, my depression would have likely catapulted further. I received no counseling, no medication (nothing was really available at that time that would have helped). Ironically at the same time my mother was getting her degree in counseling. My grades dropped from a 3.4 to about a 2.2. I left ND spring semester, pencil thin, my confidence shattered.

My parents were adamant about me finishing school in 4 years and would hear nothing about dropping out. My dad insisted that I become a business major (instead of an English major). I spent sophomore year slogging through business courses I hated. Statistics baffled me. My numbers NEVER lined up in Accounting. I gained 50 pounds, half my body weight. My GPA hovered around in the low 2 point range.

Finally in my Junior year, I was able to fill my schedule with electives. My weight dropped to a healthy range. The odd thing is when my brain got a taste of things it loved, I excelled in the business courses too. I aced Quantitative Methods. Who barely passes Statistics, but aces Quantitative Methods? Same person, just a depressed brain versus a healthy brain. I remained on Dean's list my last two years at Notre Dame. From my estimation, I spent about a year and a half in a severely depressed state. My guess is with cognitive behavior therapy, exercise and medication that is available today, that depressed period could have been dramatically shortened.

I'm happy to report that the University of Notre Dame has improved light years in their approach to mental health since 1978. They have a gorgeous counseling center, equipped with a special room with a light to battle Seasonal Affect Disorder. The counseling group I met with showed the level of dedication and concern that will help students to stay well. In addition, students have rallied, forming the first NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) group on campus.

Julie K. Hersh

ND-NAMI Officers: Alex Janiw, Julie Hersh (speaker), Clare Burke and Linda Kaiser

Source: Julie K. Hersh

On many campuses, it seems there are two common problems with preservation of mental health in a university environment: 1) Students don't know where to get help 2) Parents don't believe depression is a real problem and discourage their children from the help they need.

Depression is real. Suicide is the second highest cause of death among college students. Parents need to find that balance between providing structure to push their children to reach their potential and letting go enough to let their children discover who they are. If your child is seeking help from a counseling center on his or her own, that child needs help. Stop and listen. You might be surprised what you learn about your child and yourself.

Where to get help seems an easy solution. Why not have each college freshman tour the university counseling center as part of orientation? Many universities have a mandatory wellness or life skills course, a tour of the infirmary and counseling center seems a perfect fit there. If students are taught the process for getting help when they are well, they will know where to go when a crisis happens. If we treat depression as a treatable, common disease, students will be more likely to come for treatment. If we don't, we rely on a depressed person to reach out for help. If we care about our children, we won't put them in that state.

For more information about Julie K. Hersh or her speaking engagements, check out her website:

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