What is Depression?

Understanding Depression:


Depression can be misunderstood so it’s important to understand what it is. The word depression is often used interchangeably with sadness. Young people come in and report depression and what they are really feeling is anxiety and overwhelm (and they feel very sad about that fact). For these reasons, it’s important to understand the many faces of depression.


Sometimes depression can look like every day worries. Your child is in a completely new place, new friends and experiences. At first, it’s scary and exciting. By now, some of the initial newness is wearing off and things are getting more serious. They may experience homesickness or fear of things not working out.  Or have a difficult break up. This is known as situational depression. Now, we talked about how these things lead to anxiety for students (racing thoughts, trouble sleeping, difficulty sitting still & high emotions). Depression is when things really slow down for people. Worries turn into lack of motivation, feelings of heaviness. They may sleep a whole lot or isolate themselves. They may start to wonder what the point is and feel sad or off. Clinical depression is when these symptoms are more severe, impair daily functioning and last a longer time.


Signs that your college student may be struggling with depression:

  • They are talking about overwhelming feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
  • They start to talk to you less or are isolating from friends.
  • Lots of crying
  • Have extreme trouble getting tasks done
  • Avoid showering and other personal hygiene.
  • Physical soreness or getting sick a lot.
  • Increased numbing out through gaming, TV, alcohol, or drugs
  • And one of the scariest forms of depression is when someone talks about not wanting to live anymore/suicidal thoughts .


Coping with depression:


Now, most parents are hearing about these things from afar and it can be difficult to assess the situation or know how to help your child when they are far away.  This can be very anxiety provoking when you feel your child is in pain and you don’t know how to help.  Sometimes it can be good to visit and lay your eyes on the situation but of course, this is a delicate line because you also need to let your child figure how to manage their emotions.


Try these tips to help learn more and guide your college student in the right direction.


  • Start by listening to your child. The more you can just listen, the more they will open up to you about their feelings and you can get a feel for what is happening.
  • Self care is key. Gently check in about the basics: eating, sleeping, hygiene. These are often the first things to go. Remind them that sometimes when we don’t know what to do, starting with a basic task, just one thing they will do when they get off the phone can be a start. Encouraging daily routines.
  • Normalize. Remind them of the honeymoon phase and that it is normal to experience adjustments a couple months after a new change occurs.
  • Be a positive voice. Let them know you believe in them and praise their positive attributes. Tell them you believe that they can handle their emotions.
  • Ask them what typically helps them when they are feeling off, or out of sorts, or down (Whatever word they are using for their feelings).


Seek professional help? 

 I think with all mental health it is important to know when to encourage students to get help. A good rule of thumb is looking at just a couple of things as a whole: are they getting to class and completing tasks? Are they hanging out with others and do you see a little variety in their mood? Are they taking care of themselves? “As a whole” means look at the whole picture. If they cry every time they talk to you but they also mention friends and classes, they may just be using you as an emotional outlet which is ok and normal. If they aren’t talking about a bunch of social time, but school is happening and they seem happy, trust that they are just finding their own way.


Now, if they do seem to be really struggling, validating that it is okay to get support is important. Most universities have counseling services. They may also need to access other kinds of help such as learning centers, math labs or writing centers to get support academically. Encouraging students to join clubs helps them be around people. If they seem real resistant to hearing these things from you, encourage them to talk to their peers or an upper class man who may have experience.


Immediate help: There are a few things that you want to encourage them to get support on right away. If they do talk to you about not wanting to live anymore or not knowing why they are here, try not to get too escalated but calmly tell them that you would really like for them to talk to a professional.


Other signs you want to pay attention to are:

  • Increased and abnormal drinking or drug use combined with these thoughts.
  • Skipping classes and isolating in dorm for several days in a row.
  • Refusing to take your calls or see friends combined with any  of the above behaviors.


Obviously, college students would very rarely enjoy a parent making a call to the school’s emergency services but if you feel like your child is in real danger and you can’t get to them, this would be the option to take.


It is not my intention scare anyone. Not all depression or feelings of “down” result in or are linked to suicidal thoughts. Not all alcohol or drug experimentation; self harm or even severe depression is linked to suicidal thoughts. And it doesn’t usually come out of nowhere. If you’re child has struggled in the past, I would keep eyes open but there are many forms of adjustment that can mimic depression that are super normal. Don’t be afraid to ask. Just talk to your college student and see what they say.


And remember there is no shame in getting your own support. It’s a pretty big time of change for you too.  You can see that your child is an adult now and you know it’s important to let that happen, but you can also see where they are still learning and it makes perfect sense that you would want to help. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula. Sometimes it’s just a little trial and error. I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks for reading.

If you would like more information about our monthly care packages that support students through this big time in their lives, click here.

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Carey J. Cook, LPC

Carey J. Cook, LPC

Carey J Cook is a Licensed Professional therapist in Asheville, NC. She has a private practice and is the co-founder of Bridge Box which was inspired by her work with college students. In different capacities, Carey has provided education and therapy to college students and families for over a decade. Carey seeks to understand and support college students during this phase of life and provide tangible tools to students via Bridge Box.

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