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How to Spot Depression in Your College Student This Holiday

Observing These Signs and Symptoms? You May Need to Take Action.

SZ IMAGE/Creative Market
Source: SZ IMAGE/Creative Market

The young adult who left for college in September was a predominantly vibrant, optimistic, albeit sometimes stubborn, 18-year-old heading off to a new life away from home.

Some four months later, the person who walked through the front door for the holidays has changed, though it’s difficult to articulate why. As social obligations mount in celebration of the season, a few observations, as well as likely explanations, are made.

  • A noticeable change in weight, though that’s expected given the transition to college life (and ‘campus cuisine’).
  • Unexpected apathy, though having just traveled and getting re-acclimated to home would make anyone tired.
  • Disinterest in talking about school or personal life, though who can blame them? It’s the holiday break.

The above comments may reflect nothing more than a tired college student seguing into home mode after a taste of college life. Or the observations, especially the subsequent reasoning, can be denial at work. It’s understandable to decide against addressing an issue or a change in behavior, especially during a holiday visit; though a conversation with a loved one, particularly young adults facing transitions, is a missed opportunity to address perhaps a larger issue that is fast becoming a silent epidemic that affects 350 million people worldwide each year. And if left unchecked, this illness will become the second highest cause of death worldwide by 2020, taking a back seat to heart disease.

This epidemic is clinical depression, and young Americans are not immune to it.

A recent survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors reported that 36.4% of college students reported they experienced some level of depression in 2013. The figure is not to be taken lightly as not only is depression the primary reason students drop out of school, but if left untreated, depression could lead to suicide.

What to Look For

Keeping in mind that every individual is a unique being, don’t ignore pronounced changes. Extended holidays are gold mines. Everyone has a rough day or two, then bounce back. A brief visit where someone is off-kilter can be written off as just a bad run. The holidays offer families an opportunity to spend an extended period of time together, especially with a child who just went off to college. It’s over that lengthy break where patterns emerge. To make a difference, however, one has to recognize the signs of depression. If you see the symptoms below, encourage a loved one to complete an anonymous online depression screening at:

  • Change in appetite or weight
  • Loss of interest in activities or social gatherings
  • Fatigue, loss in energy, sleeplessness
  • Trouble concentrating, indecisiveness
  • Anger or frustration for no distinct reason
  • No longer attend classes or social outings
  • Experience extreme anger or sadness over a relationship in their life
  • React negatively or with apathy to most things
  • Talk about death or suicide

We all hurt at times, and people everywhere are uniquely positioned to stave off this epidemic by educating themselves about depression and accepting that people with depression and mental illness are not weak or inferior; they simply have an illness that can be treated. Just as people recover from physical ailments, they have the capacity to get healthier mentally; and like exercise, it starts with a first step, a free anonymous online screening, right at their fingertips.

Douglas Jacobs M.D., a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, is founder and medical director of Screening for Mental Health, Inc. Screening for Mental Health works with colleges and universities through its CollegeResponse program.