How to Minimize Your Chances of Becoming Depressed in College

Patient Expert

Every fall I get nostalgic for college. I usually give in to the impulse to sign up for an adult learning class. I think last year it was jewelry making. The year before, we lived in the middle of nowhere, so I took an online course. Now that I'm working at a large university, my college nostalgia is mostly satisfied by just being at work forty hours a week.

Despite my (undiagnosed) depression, I really loved college. I cried for about half an hour after my parents left me at my dorm and went home (I think my mom cried longer). I had never been very good at being away from home and my parents, but for some reason the homesickness didn't last at college. That night I went out with friends to all the MIT and Boston College fraternity parties, and my college life was off and running.

Judging by what I saw in my dorm, my experience was pretty common. Most of the other women lost their homesickness early on. I remember one woman who didn't, though; she ended up going home. I felt sorry for her, but I could see how a whole new life was overwhelming for some people.

Although I didn't suffer from homesickness, I did experience my first two major depressive episodes while in college. Although I had suffered from dysthymia (long-term, low level depression) for much of my life, it had never tipped into major depression before. It's actually fairly common for a person's first major depressive episode to occur in college, due to many new stresses and risk factors that are introduced at that time. I cover the various causes in greater detail in my article Depression in the Dorms: What You Need to Know About Mental Health and College.

But there are some things you can do to help insulate yourself against depression. Note that I'm not saying "to prevent depression" because that would give you the false impression that the suggestions I'm giving you will prevent depression. Since every person and his or her situation, family history and many other things differ, that's not something I could responsibly say. But in the same way that you take vitamins and get enough sleep to keep from getting sick, these are ways to boost your odds of staying healthy. And speaking of, check out my very first suggestion:

1. Take care of yourself physically.

Most college students are not great at taking care of themselves. Something always comes before their health - either studying or partying. But three things you can do to stay healthy physically could help you to stay healthy mentally: eat a balanced diet, exercise and get rid of stress.

  • Make sure you eat enough fruit, veggies and protein, and don't let the snack machine and late night pizza runs make up most of your diet.
  • Take advantage of whatever facilities your college offers to keep fit. If that's not feasible for some reason, work out in your dorm room with a tape or DVD.
  • Stress has been linked to depression in several studies. Maybe you can't avoid stress, but you can get rid of it, either by working out or meditating. Yoga is a great way to get rid of stress.

2. Socialize

Remember that you've lost that daily contact that you had with your family, and with it, an aspect of your support system. Unless you're a serious hermit, you need to replace that with something else. All colleges have student groups, formal or informal. Join one that interests you and offer to be an officer, or, if applicable, volunteer to help plan events. It's a great way to meet people, and a shared purpose makes for less awkward socializing, even for introverts like me.

3. Talk to a counselor.

Depression in college students is often caused by issues that can be addressed through short-term talk therapy. You may be feeling homesick or lonely, or overwhelmed in general by the change in your life. If your family is dysfunctional, being away from them may be giving you a perspective that, while valuable, can be hard to process.

If you think you're experiencing clinical depression already, you should see a doctor to get diagnosed or treated, either with antidepressants or therapy, or both. It's very important not to put it off. These years are really wonderful, and you don't want to waste them by being depressed.

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