Breaking the silence on depression

By Sara Butler
Crumpled tissues fill up her purse as assignments pile on top of her. She feels lost, hopeless and completely alone. No matter how many times she tries, tries and tries again, the world seems completely against her. All she can do is cry.

According to an Associated Press survey of over 2,000 college students at four-year universities, four out of 10 college students are depressed. This girl is one of those four.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines depression as a “serious medical illness that affects one’s thoughts, feeling, behavior, mood and physical health.” This is not a feeling of sadness, but rather a state of mind that all hope for happiness is lost.

Symptoms of depression include difficulty concentrating, memory problems, excessive crying and changes in eating or sleep patterns. All of these symptoms can affect a student’s academic ability to complete assignments and study for tests, as well as produce social anxiety. In college, many of us feel symptoms of depression from time to time, especially during midterms and final exams.

However, when these symptoms do not go away and interfere with the ability to function in everyday life, the issue is usually more serious. Major depression is often classified as having five or more symptoms for two weeks or longer.

In fact, Moisés Barón, the Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs for Student Wellness at USD says that, “8 percent of students reported having been diagnosed or treated for depression and 25 percent of USD students reported an episode in the last 12 months in which they felt so depressed that they could not function. This is consistent with national data, that reports an average of 31 percent among college students.”

While depression may make a student feel helpless, it is not a hopeless case.

There are many resources available for USD students on-campus, such as the Counseling Center and the Center for Health and Wellness Promotion.

Despite the increase in cases of college depression and campus resources, depression still seems to be a sore topic that people are sensitive toward bringing up.

If more college students are developing depressive behaviors and there are readily available resources to deal with this change, why is depression still so hard to talk about?
Depression seems to be an illness that silences it’s victims.

Students may be afraid to admit to it due to a perceived stigma of mental illness. The stigma of a mental illness can discourage those who are suffering from getting the help they need.
This perceived stigma may invoke fear of being labeled, with titles such as “lazy” or “crazy”. Labels can be hard to shed or overcome, so an initial reaction might be to ignore the negative feelings in order to avoid association with a stigma or label.

In order to combat this, the stigma of depression and labels that accompany mental illness must cease on our campus. However, this requires a cultural change that takes a long time to effectively foster and maintain.

The pressing issue is that those with symptoms of depression are afraid to speak up. Not getting help only makes the behavior worsen, allowing the depression to progress.

Fear of breaking the silence is largely because of the fear of being defined by the label, or being seen through the lens of the stigma that is associated with people diagnosed with depression. However, this silence leads the student to be defined by the illness, causing it to overwhelm his or her life.

This vow of silence is not a strength of the weak, but a weakness of the strong. Depression is absent from our everyday conversations, sometimes considered a sensitive or taboo topic. We may figure that if we do not talk about it, it will not exist among our student population.

However, depression is not invisible on our campus. It is a powerful force that may be affecting the boy in your calculus class or the girl sitting at a table in Aromas. Your roommate may be crying themselves to sleep at night, or your lab partner might be trying to make it through the experiment without screaming.

We are all college students with academic and social pressures weighing on our shoulders, and we must try our best to relate to and understand one another.

Although the word “depression” appears to be absent from the campus conversation, voices are emerging from the silence.

USD has recently teamed up with the Suicide Prevention Council to launch a “Not on My Watch” campus-wide campaign. It attempts to open up the dialogue about depression and suicide at the university, offering information and resources at a variety of events.

Further, some students have taken advantage of our university’s services. In fact, every eight out of 100 students at USD use the Counseling Center’s services each year.

The Counseling Center is home to a welcoming staff of trained professionals. Their website offers helpful information and online resources, as well as student feedback about the services it provides.
“At first, I felt like I didn’t have any options, but in my sessions I was able to realize I did,” a USD student said.

These services can help students regain control of their lives in the overwhelming world of college.

College students are at a high risk for developing depression. According to the AP survey mentioned earlier, 85 percent of college students felt stressed or overwhelmed with over 40 percent of students feeling symptoms of depression in the two weeks prior to the survey.

The only way to fight depression is to talk about it. While talk therapy is a common treatment for depression, this “talk” has to also find a way to integrate itself into the campus conversation. The more we talk about depression, the more we can normalize it. This will help lay a supportive foundation that encourages those who feel hopeless to seek help, without the threat of a stigma or a label.

I believe that the fear of a stigma is a relevant explanation for the silence on depression. However, after talking with Moisés Barón, my eyes were opened to another alternative.

“I think we always think that the major problem is the stigma, but in a recent study only 12 percent of students reported that they did not seek help because of the stigma.” Barón said. “Although stigma might be a reason, there are other variables, such as students downplaying or minimizing their problems.”

According to the Journal of American College Health, the most common self-reported reason for not seeking professional mental help service among college students at elevated risk for suicide was the “perception that professional help is not needed due to problems being minor or transient”. While this was a small sample size, it offers another viable reason for the continued silence.

Whatever the reason, student-to student-help is still absolutely crucial. By talking to friends about depression, symptoms can be more easily detected. These students can reach out to the wellness services at USD to express questions or concerns about a friend that they feel may be at risk.

Instead of ignoring it’s presence on our campus, let’s break the silence and make a new vow to talk about depression at USD.