Facing a cold front of depression

According to a 2004 survey by the American College Health Association, nearly half of all college students reported feeling so depressed that they had trouble functioning normally and 15 percent of students meet the criteria

According to a 2004 survey by the American College Health Association, nearly half of all college students reported feeling so depressed that they had trouble functioning normally and 15 percent of students meet the criteria for clinical depression.

As scary as that sounds, it’s not the worst part.

In many cases, untreated depression can lead to suicide. And though that may seem like an extreme and uncommon event, it’s actually the second leading cause of death among college students, right behind motor vehicle accidents.

While it may be more difficult to stop our No. 1 killer, it’s definitely possible to move suicide further down the list.

Temple has its own expert on depression and suicide among college students: Dr. Lauren B. Alloy. Alloy has done several studies on the topic and spoke about why college students are so prone to developing depression.

“The transition to college carries with it many new stressors, such as new and difficult academic challenges, moving away from home for the first time, needing to make new friends and form new social networks,” Alloy said. “If things go badly in any of these academic or social areas, an episode of depression could be triggered.”

Depressive disorders affect approximately
18.8 million American adults per year.
Alexis Pelletier, a pre-medical senior majoring in psychology, has interacted with depressed students through her work with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

Pelletier said many of the students with whom she has had contact have had underlying depression issues exacerbated and then brought to the surface by the pressures of college.

“A common misconception is that depression
is due to an outside factor [such as] moving away from home and academic pressures,” Pelletier said.

“However, depression is a chemical imbalance, which is often genetically transmitted. An outside factor usually triggers it … and triggers vary in degree from person to person.”

Gina Monturo, a senior psychology major, said students can have difficulties balancing the newfound freedom of choice that comes with being on one’s own for the first time in life.

“Students no longer have parents and guardians constantly around to tell them what to do. It’s the student’s responsibility to decide whether to party or study,” she said.

And the anxieties that come with making these decisions can definitely be a trigger, especially when the wrong choices are made.

Both Pelletier and Monturo speak of interpersonal conflicts as another major trigger. Friends and family members may have trouble adjusting to a student’s new lifestyle and this can cause conflict and stress for both parties.

Beyond that, trying to balance new and old friendships can be difficult, especially with someone who may be “more than a friend.”

College students often struggle with finally having the freedom to explore their sexual identity and the changes that that could possibly make in their lives. The “break up-make up cycle” with a significant other or the excitement of dating for the first time can trigger anxieties and depression easily.

Other major triggers include academic pressures, financial anxieties about student loans, drugs and drinking or the death of a loved one.

But almost anything can be a trigger, depending upon the individual’s psychological makeup and his or her natural ability to deal with stress.

Alloy said that in her research, “Students with negative cognitive styles are eight to 10 times more likely to have a clinically significant depressive episode when they experience stressors than students who have positive cognitive styles.”

Cognitive style is a psychological term used to describe the way an individual perceives and remembers information, and their preferred approach to using that information for problem-solving.

She said that someone with a negative cognitive style would include one who has a pessimistic world view or who has issues with low self-esteem, including feelings of guilt or not measuring up.

Others who are prone to developing depression are those who have a history of depression in the family, and females – who are twice as likely as males to become depressed.

Monturo admits that, from time to time, even she has struggled with symptoms of depression.

“I’ve watched several friends and family members struggle with depression and I have also dealt with it myself,” she said.

“Maybe that’s why I’m a psych major. I wanted to help people deal with the things I had to deal with on my own.”

Students are also prone to struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, more commonly
known as seasonal depression.

The key factor to diagnosing SAD is its timing. A person affected by the disorder will find themselves to be unexplainably depressed during winter months and then notice a mood change once the season turns.
The reason for this is the lack of sun and shorter days during winter. The human brain needs the sun’s rays to help it produce serotonin, which is a major mood neurotransmitter.

Without help from the sun, the brain’s production of serotonin lacks, causing one to feel moody and depressed.

The best way to tell if you’re experiencing
SAD is in your appetite. Are you really grabbing that extra helping of mashed potatoes or that sugary Christmas cookie because you’re hungry? Or are you just craving junk lately without an apparent reason?

Norman Rosenthal, the scientist who discovered and coined the term “seasonal affective disorder” in 1984, theorized that people with SAD have immense cravings for carbohydrates, which are also believed to increase the level of the serotonin in the brain, in order to compensate for the lack of sun.

No matter what you think might be causing
you to feel down, the best way to combat feelings of depression is to talk about them – even if it’s just confiding in a friend, family member or trusted professor.

Chrissy Reese can be reached at lolli.rot@temple.edu.

1 Comment

  1. ‘Chemical imbalance’ is one of those convenient metaphors often used in medicine to uncomplicated the complicated that has taken on a life of its own with many people, including some researchers who should know better, believing it actually exists. But it doesn’t, especially in regards to anxiety disorders and depression.

    It wouldn’t matter much except that some people are mislead by the myth into buying all manner of concoctions that supposedly fix the ‘imbalance,’ some of which are potentially dangerous. The amino acid l-tryptophan, the precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin being a prime example.

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