Imagine that you’ve had a bad day. You’ve been caught in a torrential downpour on your way into university, just missed out on a 2:1 on an assignment that you thought you’d done really well on, and then after waiting 20 minutes for a bus home you realised at the last second that you didn’t have any change to buy a ticket. Understandably, you’re feeling pretty bad, and when your housemate asks what’s wrong as you finally stagger dejectedly through the front door, you answer, ‘Everything. I’m depressed.’
From everyday conversations such as this, it is evident that the term ‘depression’ is often used to describe general low spirits, and is often used interchangeably with ‘sad’, ‘upset’, or even ‘stressed’. This can make it easy to forget that depression itself is not just an emotion but a medical condition that can severely affect peoples’ lives.
Studies by the Mental Health Foundation have shown that one in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem – from stress and anxiety, to depression – with mixed anxiety and depression being the most commonly diagnosed psychological condition in Britain.
When it comes to university students, another recent survey by the foundation has demonstrated that 50 per cent exhibited signs of clinical anxiety, with over one in 10 suffering from clinical depression.
The fact that university students can be so vulnerable to the development of such symptoms might, at first glance, seem surprising; university is supposed to be the ‘time of your life’, the period between school and adulthood where people study something that they are passionate about, develop their interests, and really come to know themselves.
However, this is a somewhat idealistic image, and in reality, there are a huge amount of struggles faced each day by students that some find harder to manage than others. These issues can range between the initial transitions; from life at home with friends and family into the fast moving independence of university; to financial, social, and occupational pressures.
Although moving to university is exciting, the anxieties that accompany such a huge change can lead to emotional difficulties. It can be an extremely daunting experience, and requires students to cope with serious adjustments, be they social, cultural, or even related to location. Often, the move is accompanied by big lifestyle changes, which can lead to feelings of isolation and alienation should a student prove less able to adjust to their new surroundings than others.
These changes can prove particularly troublesome without the friends and family that would usually provide encouragement and security, as problems must suddenly be confronted without the usual support base close at hand.
Financial pressures are also a particularly prevalent concern. Many students have difficulty managing loans, overdrafts, credit cards, and the payments of rent and bills as well as funding food, nights out, and other recreational expenditue.
Time management can also cause difficulties, with the juggling of lectures, reading, and assignment deadlines alongside a job and social lives being for some just too much to manage.
When these symptoms are combined with other social pressures faced by the majority of students, university can be a hotbed for emotional difficulty. Being surrounded by so many other students the same age can make individuals feel insignificant, feeling they have to compete with others not only in the academic stakes but also in terms of social standing, general success, and even appearance.
This tendency to compare yourself with others can be exacerbated by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, where the appearances and personalities of people are put on full display, making it easy to draw comparison between yourself and others. For those already experiencing low self-esteem or the feelings of worthlessness often associated with depression, this can have an extremely negative effect, causing them to feel persistently bettered by these online portraits of their peers every time they log on.
However, with the rise of social media and the internet, people suffering from depression are increasingly able to take more independent tactics in order to deal with their symptoms. The tendency of those experiencing depression to withdraw, shun social situations and become highly introverted leads to their problems and emotional struggles being directed inwardly, which prevents them from being talked through with others and gaining the relief of sharing and receiving advice.
Additionally, the stigma attached to depression as a medical condition can cause those experiencing symptoms to be reluctant to discuss their problems, for fear of being labelled ‘ill’. Thus, with the sufferer unable to discuss their emotions and consider how to deal with their depression, the feelings of helplessness and low self-worth become compounded, and symptoms exacerbated.
The popularity of the internet as a medium of communication could therefore be extremely beneficial to sufferers. There are many websites that can be easily accessed by sufferers reluctant to take their problems to a doctor or other professional, which offer advice, encouragement, and ideas to help to deal with the symptoms.
Additionally, there are many web forums where those struggling alone with their depression can discuss their problems, allowing them to find others experiencing the same emotions which can prevent them from feeling so isolated.
Facebook has also shown signs of potential in being used to diagnose depression, with a recent study at the University of Washington showing that 30 per cent of 200 students surveyed demonstrated signs of depression in their Facebook status updates, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association.
However, this idea is controversial; it can be difficult to distinguish between those that are exaggerating their symptoms – for example, using the word ‘depression’ to cover a range of bad moods it does not technically describe – and those that genuinely need help. Often, the tendency of depression sufferers to withdraw and remain private about their problems prevents them from being diagnosed through a public forum.
Although self-help methods like these are available, they are no replacement for medical consultation. The University offers a huge level of support for those suffering from, or who are concerned that they may be suffering from, depression, or who just need to talk through problems that are causing them to struggle with everyday life.
The University Health Service can help students suffering from anxiety or depression to experiment with a few different treatments, including group and one-to-one counselling sessions and cognitive behavioural therapy. The counselling service offers 20 minute drop-in one-to-one sessions for students that aren’t sure if counselling can help them, and allow them to experience the atmosphere and decide if further appointments will be beneficial.
Additionally, the University runs the ‘Skills for Life’ programme, composed of a series of workshops and group sessions designed to help students to cope more efficiently with the demands of university life. Sessions cover topics such as how to deal with stress and improve self-confidence and assertiveness, the development of time management skills, how to speak in public (‘for the terrified’) and also how to cope with bereavement. Stress and relaxation sessions are also held each Tuesday lunchtime, and aim to teach students how to cope with stress levels and relax when they feel overwhelmed. Each of these options could be supremely effective in learning to manage everyday pressures, preventing them from accumulating and potentially leading to depression.
Ultimately, if they feel this is the only treatment that will benefit them, anti-depressants can be prescribed to tackle the persistent low moods and other symptoms associated with the condition.
While practitioners may offer such medication to help deal with the symptoms of depression, pharmaceutical treatments such as these cannot deal with the causes, and the Health Service usually recommends that students first attempt some of the therapies or alternative treatments.
There are also various practical ways to help alleviate some of the low moods and symptoms that accompany depression. Often, sufferers can gain feelings of extremely low self-worth which, combined with general apathy cause them to stop looking after themselves, creating a spiral in which their self-esteem causes them to make less effort and so lower their self-esteem even further. Thus, it can be helpful to work on self-esteem, which can be done through the help of a counsellor or researching self-help methods on improving confidence.
To overcome the lethargy and fatigue that can sometimes occur as symptoms of depression, exercise is highly recommended; it is proven to release endorphins that encourage a positive overall mood as well as boosting energy levels.
Ultimately, the statistics show that university is perhaps not quite the life of carefree partying, barely kept deadlines, and indifferent relaxation – at least, not all of the time. The pressures that are an inherent part of university life can be difficult to deal with, yet as with any illness awareness is the key to control and to treatment.
Just by being aware of possible symptoms in friends, family, or even ourselves, there is no need for any one of the 50 per cent of our students to suffer alone.