By Mallory Gruben
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), most people experience their first symptoms of depression during their college years; in 2011 an estimated 30 percent of college and university students reported that depression had impaired their ability to function at some point in the year. Stigmas that surround mental health, as well as poor education on how to create and maintain a healthy mental status, often deter college-aged students from seeking the help they might need to battle depression.
Depression is typically caused by an imbalance of certain chemicals—serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine—in the brain that regulate mood. This imbalance can be caused by genetic factors, but depression may also stem from non-genetic changes to these chemical balances due to stress. Depression may be so widespread in college-aged students because college adds stress—in the form of tests, a new environment and a sense of lacking a safety net—that students didn’t previously have.
“There can be long term stress in people’s lives that creates a difference in the way they view themselves, the way they view the world and the way that they think about things that can cause those chemical changes in the brain,” said Jon Loetterle, director of Hastings College’s counseling services.
Genetics and stress are not the only factors that cause depression. Trauma, feelings of isolation and new environments can also be influential factors in the development of depression. Experiencing these factors, however, does not guarantee that an individual will become depressed.
“There are people with the genetic factors that find themselves in really stressful life situations who don’t develop depression,” Loetterle said. “There are other people with depression who have all of the signs and symptoms. There really isn’t a neat definition for what causes depression.”
An individual can be diagnosed with a variety of types of depression as well. Some of these types include major depressive disorder and minor depression, among others.
The most disabling type of depression is likely major depressive disorder. Individuals with major depressive disorder often struggle with everyday activities like eating and sleeping. Usually these individuals experience episodes of depression repeatedly, even after receiving treatment.
Minor depression is much more common than major depressive disorder. It also has less severe symptoms and usually lasts a relatively short amount of time. Minor depression is still very dangerous, though, because if an individual suffering from it doesn’t receive treatment, their risk for developing major depressive disorder increases.
Chances of developing a more severe type of depression increase due to lack of treatment, but many people experiencing signs and symptoms of minor depression still go untreated. Stigmatization, such as ideas that weakness, dependence or abnormality are directly associated with depression, is one of the leading reasons people don’t seek help.
Active Minds is a college and university organization focused on deconstructing the stigma surrounding mental health. The hope of the group is to change national conversations about the “taboo” topics of mental illnesses like depression to something more open and positive. The group also tries to create a safe environment so students don’t feel the pressure of stigmatization as they seek help.
Despite any remaining stigmas surrounding mental health, Liz Tidwell, president of HC’s branch of Active Minds, suggests that students seek help when it comes to feeling stressed or depressed. Even if a student might not be experiencing depression, they can still monitor stress to prevent it from becoming a bigger issue.
“A lot of little things can become a big thing,” Tidwell said. “Even if it’s just a little bit of test anxiety or stress from your roommate and your classes, if you don’t address it, that box that you’ve been throwing everything in becomes a whole lot heavier and a lot more difficult to unpack.”
The most common recommendation for maintaining a healthy mental status is to talk about internal feelings, especially if stress levels begin to rise. On HC’s campus, students can utilize resources such as weekly Active Minds meetings (Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.) or free, on-campus counseling services in order to talk through their feelings and monitor their mental health.