As a psychologist in a university counseling center, I encounter students struggling with a number of different issues. But there is one type of student that I see quite frequently, and it looks something like this . . .
They have been struggling with a lack of motivation and low energy for the past few weeks/months. They don’t seem to want to go outside or spend time with their friends. They either have trouble sleeping or want to sleep all day. They can’t seem to focus on their school assignments and have begun to procrastinate a lot. They have been skipping classes and grades have started to slip. Activities and hobbies that used to interest them no longer have any appeal, and they end up spending most of their time alone in their room watching Netflix or playing video games. Maybe they are drinking or smoking more. They don’t want to tell their friends or family what’s going on, partly because they feel ashamed or embarrassed, and partly because they themselves don’t even know what’s going on. All they know is that they don’t feel right, and they don’t know what to do about it.
When I first mention the word “depression” to these students, they will frequently respond with, “I can’t be depressed! I don’t feel suicidal,” or “I thought depression was when you were sad and cried all the time.” I then try to explain to these students that depression can take many forms. Yes, it is true that for some people, depression is experienced as nonstop crying and suicidal ideation. For others however, it might mean a lack of motivation, an increased sense of apathy, isolating from friends and family, not wanting to engage in life. Depression can also include mood swings, feeling worthless, “checked out” or emotionally numb, and increased irritability or anger.
Depression can be caused by a number of factors: stressful life circumstances, big adjustments (e.g., starting college or starting a new relationship), lack of sun exposure, the recent death of a loved one, the loss of a significant relationship, excessive use of alcohol or marijuana, genetic predisposition and other biological factors, etc. People with marginalized identities who are subject to ongoing oppression and discrimination (e.g., LGBTQ, people of color, first generation in the US, etc.) are at a increased risk of depression.
Fortunately, depression, whether mild, moderate, or severe, can be treated! Therapy, increased activity, exposure to sunlight and Vitamin D supplements, a “happy lamp,” spending more time with friends, antidepressant medication, improved sleep habits, cutting back on substance use (particularly alcohol and marijuana), are all ways of improving one’s mood and reducing symptoms of depression.
Please remember that depression can effect anyone, anywhere, at any time. It is not a weakness, an excuse, or a choice. It is real — and it can be treated and get better.
Chandra Mundon, Psy.D.