A Parent's Guide to Depression in College
You are the proud parent of a collegiate, and by now your late teen/young adult should be adjusting to college.....or possibly not. Since he (she) may be far away, it can be somewhat difficult to assess from phone calls, emails and text messaging just how well he is adjusting. It is not unusual for a collegiate to experience loneliness, depression or sadness in the early weeks and months of adjustment. As a parent, how do you differentiate between normal adjustment emotions and a more serious situation that warrants greater scrutiny and intervention?
First let's look at the typical feelings your collegiate can experience. If he went off to college without any other friends, then he faces the task of making new friendships that initially will not be as close or deep as those that he has left behind. That can mean periods of loneliness. There is typically less structure in college so he can feel disorganized, isolated and challenged with numerous responsibilities. He may have wanted independence and privileges as a high school student, but now they may be quite overwhelming. He may also begin to have self-doubt - can I cut it? Adding to these very normal feelings are some other risks.
If your home is a typically sunny climate like southern California and your college student has landed in Boston Massachusetts, the dreary winter landscape can actually induce SAD or seasonal affective disorder. The treatment can be an easy combination of a special light that simulates the sun's rays (without UV danger) and/or psychotherapy, which recent studies show may be even more effective. But you have to recognize the signs of SAD or depression in order to intervene and help your student.
Use the following "check in" tips as a guide to help you make sure you are tuned in to your college student's mood and needs:
- Don't expect a call daily, but you should receive communications every several days
- Does he sound engaged, excited and full of energy?
- Is he talking about new friendships, fun roommates?
- Is he discussing his classes, his exploration of the campus and surrounding community?
- Is he exercising, engaged in sports, talking about his meals?
- Is he complaining about laundry, intensity of classes, dorm assignment?
- Is he talking about missing you?
If the answer to most of these questions is "yes" then he is probably adjusting well to school. There should be a lot of enthusiasm coupled with some unhappiness and complaining, since this is an adjustment period. The fact that he is communicating well is a good indicator that things are going relatively well in terms of settling into college and dorm life.
Signs that may indicate SAD or depression:
- Long periods between communications and then very short "listless" conversations"
- Discussions that indicate strong pessimism, loss of motivation
- Comments about few friends, boring classes, many missed classes
- Irritability or moodiness
- Repeated comments about low energy levels, disrupted sleep, loss or gain of significant weight
- Repeated comments about feeling overwhelmed, isolated, sad, anxious, blue
Yes this is a time of new independence for your son or daughter, and it can be fraught with typical misgivings and missteps. It can also, for some students, be a time of more serious problems that may need mom or dad stepping in.