What It’s Like To Navigate College When You’re Depressed

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By Wendy Menjivar/ VoiceWaves 

As Sunday night arrives most college students prepare by filling their backpacks with books for the coming week. But for Cal State Long Beach student Rachel Keeney, that process also involves making sure she takes her dosage of the anti-depressant Zoloft. Keeney suffers from depression.

The non-profit Dosomething.org, which promotes youth-driven social change, estimates that every year around 20 million Americans suffer from depression. Women are twice as likely to suffer from it than men.

“I would get really sad and dark thoughts,” said Keeney, 20.

Keeney was diagnosed with depression just out of high school in 2011. She said the trigger for her depression was the fear of losing her friends.

“It’s hard for me to make friends. I’m very reclusive, very introverted,” said Keeney, who added that feelings of being unappreciated at work or home also served as triggers.

“It [depression] would last for weeks,” she explained. “I would want to write [suicide] notes.”

According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, thoughts or emotions that begin to interfere with eating, sleep, work or study and that last more than two weeks are considered to be signs of major depression.

“[Depression] changes the way you look at people,” said Cal State Long Beach senior Erik Lopez. Lopez is a certified counselor with the school’s Question-Persuade-Refer (QPR) Suicide prevention program.

Established by Cal State Long Beach in 2008, the program is designed to help prevent suicides among students by teaching staff and peers to be more aware of signs of depression and to better recognize when a student may be considering suicide.

A study by the National Mental Health Alliance (NAMI) discovered in 2012 that over 70 percent of college students in the United States admitted to having a mental health crisis while in college. That same study also found that over 30 percent of students did not report their crisis to another person at their college.

Keeney says she’s only opened up once before about her own struggle with depression to a professor.

“It was overwhelming, and I just had to set her aside and say ‘this is what’s going on in my head, I’m sorry if I’m reacting certain ways in class or not reacting at all.’” Keeney added that her professor was very understanding.

“You have to take depression and suicide very seriously,” said Child Development and Family Studies professor Janice Falberg, noting she often educates her students about the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Cal State Long Beach, which offers free therapy sessions for students.

“I encourage them to seek help there. I let them know that if they would like me to call ahead, I will do that for them,” says Falberg.

A study by the University of Stanford concluded that 50 percent of people who suffer from depression are genetically predisposed to the illness. It also determined that a person is 2-3 times more likely to have depression if their parent or sibling had it.

“My father, his father, my sister has it,” said Keeney. “After [my father] started seeing a psychologist, I started seeing one,” she added.

Psychology professor Carol Ann Caesar says that relationships are the most common factor in triggering bouts of depression for college students.

“In this age group we have adults who are venturing into very meaningful relationships. When those go awry it can set their worldview upside down,” said Caesar.

Then there is the troubling link between depression and suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death in the United States among 15 to 24-year-olds. The number of suicides among men is five-times as high as that for women.

Keeney said she is now very open about her depression. “I actually find that talking about it has been really helpful.” Though she also noted people need to understand “you can’t get over it in one day.”

While in school, she’s also come up with ways to cope with bouts of depression.

“If I feel myself get too stressed out, or too unmotivated, then I will just take a day and just breathe,” she said.

Aside from antidepressants, things like exercise, social support, and a healthy diet can also help lower the chances of experiencing severe swings.

Despite her own struggles, Keeney says depression has taught her optimism and mental health awareness. She said she keeps herself grounded by reminding herself who is really in charge.

“I tell myself take it one day at a time… you control your own happiness,” she said.

VoiceWaves is a project of New America Media.

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