6 Things You Should Know About College Depression

Understanding why depression is so pervasive in higher education


Suicide rates among college age students, 15 -24, have tripled in that last 70 years, according to the American College Health Association (ACHA). In fact, suicide is now the second most common cause of death among college students.

For many students, higher education is not as straightforward as just going to classes and studying. Data from the American College Health Association published in the Global Journal of Medical Research showed that 16 percent of college students had been diagnosed with depression. To address this problem, we need to understand why depression is such a prevalent challenge in the college environment.

While a student at Quinnipiac University, I had the privilege of being the president of an on-campus chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). A group of fellow students, we organized meetings both to reduce stigma around mental health conditions and provide an open-minded and empathetic environment for students who were suffering from them. Having worked on campus as part of NAMI’s efforts, I am familiar with both the facts and magnitude of mental health issues on college campuses. Here are six things that affect student's mental health on college campuses:

1. Constant deadlines and demands

There have always been demanding deadlines and challenges around higher education; however, students now face an entirely new dimension of expectations. Through programs such as Blackboard, an online academic platform, teachers are able to set due dates for everything from tests to papers over weekends and late at night. It is not uncommon for students to be grinding to meet a midnight or Saturday deadline or take a test. The 18-year-olds who are starting college are woefully unprepared for the pressure that a 24/7 academic schedule can bring. Many of them have trouble coping. Student counseling services have tried to address the increasing academic demand with more resources, but a 2017 survey from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors reported that only 40 percent are open until 7 p.m. and less than 1.5 percent are open on the weekend.

2. Lack of sleep

A study published in Behavior Therapy revealed that lack of sleep is a widespread problem in the academic environment, with data indicating that 9.5 percent of students met the criteria for chronic insomnia according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). This lack of sleep is dangerous to a hardworking mind. People with insomnia are 10 times more likely to suffer from depression.

To address mental health in higher education, we need to understand why depression is so prevalent in the college environment.

3. Lack of mental health strategies and tools

Data from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported by the American Psychological Association shows that approximately 33 percent of students took medication for mental health reasons between 2012 and 2013, most of them treated for depression or anxiety. Medication can be invaluable, but when it is used without other adjustments, it serves merely as a Band-Aid. Depression not only affects mood and outlook, but also impairs the cognitive abilities that are crucial to success in an academic environment.

A study published in The Lancet detailed that while antidepressants can help improve mood and outlook, used independent of life adjustments, antidepressants showed little improvement in the cognitive impairments of depression, in attention, response inhibition, verbal memory, decision speed, and information processing, even after acute treatment. All of these traits are crucial for succeeding in academics. Taking proactive steps like exercising is what makes antidepressants effective in achieving real and long-lasting change.

4. Increasing competition and a challenging job market

From 2001 to 2011, enrollment in college increased 32 percent, according to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics. More people than ever are attending college. That means there is more pressure to outshine the competition. With around 16 million students in college programs, that competition is intense. All of this is compounded by the difficulty of finding the right job. A report by The Washington Post says that as many as 80 percent of graduating seniors did not have a job lined up after graduation in 2015, despite actively searching for one. This can prompt increased anxiety and fear about the future, leading to the negative outlooks that make depression so pointed.

5. Debt

According to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), the statewide average debt levels for the Class of 2016 ranged from $20,000 to $36,000. In 2015, graduates of four-year public and nonprofit colleges owed an average of $30,000, up 4 percent from 2014. These student loans, and figuring out how to repay them, adds another layer of pressure to many students’ experiences.

6. Binge drinking and negative social pressure

While healthy social interaction is undeniably positive, social norms such as drinking and using drugs can be destructive to both your emotional well-being and academic career. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that, in 2016, 40.8 percent of students surveyed reported they had been intoxicated in the last month, and 32.4 percent said they had been involved in binge drinking in the two weeks prior the survey. These behaviors are often considered social rites of passage.

Thankfully, groups like NAMI exist on campus to help college students who suffer from depression, providing positive social opportunities. I can say from firsthand experience that groups and communities made up of informed and empathetic peers change lives for the better, and can lend strength to those trying to get better.

See more helpful articles:

11 College Accommodations for Students with Anxiety Disorders

Depression in the Dorms: What You Need to Know About Mental Health and College

Back to School Blues: Symptoms of Depression in College Students