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Depression and the college experience

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OSU's SGA hosts Mental Health Week, beginning on April 1st with Mental Health Is No Joke, which included balloons for remembrance and signs of encouragement.

Mental health is something people don’t tend to think about until it affects them.

In a digital fast-paced world, it can be difficult to bring up matters like mental health in casual conversation. A major factor in public awkwardness over this subject is because of the stigmatization of mental health.

Major Depressive Disorder is defined as “a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) 5 defines depression as meeting five of nine specifically laid out criteria including diminished ability to concentrate, loss of energy and marked disinterest in almost all activities.

According to Our World in Data, an estimated 268 million people suffered from depression in 2016. This sample makes up about 6% of the world and doesn’t correlate with the higher GDP typically associated with countries considered developed. The U.S. ranks fairly high with a depression rate around 5.1 per 100 people. For reference, countries like Haiti and Pakistan have rates around 3.7 per 100 people.

Around 8.1% of Americans have reported depression for at least a two-week period from 2013-2016, according to the Center for Disease Control. Women were found to be almost twice as likely to report they suffer from depression than men.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death nationally, but it's the second leading cause of death among people ages 15-24. These suicides largely used firearms or suffocation and accounted for 32,306 confirmed cases from 2012-2015. While this might not sound like a large number, suicide is commonly hard to prove and often classified as accidental death. The actual rates are predicted to be much higher. Data suggest that despite efforts for increased mental health awareness, a larger percent of the U.S. population turns to such drastic measures every year.

It is hard to find concrete statistics on depression, but it is widely regarded as the leading cause of suicided.

Most people start to develop depression and other mental illness in their early 20s, and it can be triggered by stress. This combination leads to college being the place many young people start developing symptoms.

Social expectations are not the only factors that can affect college students’ mental health.

“There are all sorts of stressors,” said associate professor and Director of Psychological Services Center Tony Wells.

Wells said for college students, the three main stressors come in the form of time, money and social support. Time and money are fairly straight-forward concepts to grasp as students are poor and tend to be short on time. Social support is more of an abstract idea, though, but it has very real consequences on mental health.

“We know that social support is a big factor of depression,” Wells said. “Lately we have been looking into how people pay attention to emotional information and how it’s related to depression. We have also been looking at social media’s impact on depression and how it can provide a fake sense of social connection.”

Wells’ lab looks into how this affects the long-term maintenance of depression and finds correlations that align with past research. Research into social media’s impact is still a relatively new field across all practices, and he said they will need more research going into the future.

Jennifer Byrd-Craven, an associate professor and the Experimental Program director for the Oklahoma State University Psycology Department, said there is a practical function to depression.

“From an evolutionary prospective, depression is actually pretty fictional,” Bryd-Craven said. “It serves to prevent you from incurring additional social risks and signals to others that we need assistance or support. There are factors that are specific to college students that seem to account for this rise in depression and suicidal ideation.

“With college students, we sort of have the perfect storm. We know that stress often precedes depressive episodes. Being away from family also means that they don’t have the social support that they are used to.”

Bryd-Craven talked about how the period of emerging adulthood is a fairly novel concept specific to humans. Throughout history, young adulthood would be a time when people start contributing to their groups, but now we have long periods where we are contributing little to the groups. The benefits of students’ work is not immediately apparent while in college, which can lead to a sense of hopelessness and burdensomeness.

While this can happen throughout life, this issue affects college students the most, leading to disproportionate rates of suicide among young adults. These novel stressors for students can also affect people who are already struggling with issues such as anxiety.

“I’ve had anxiety long before college, but going through it brought on an intense level of depression,” a senior psychology student, who wishes not to be identified, said. “Between the workload and my dad getting cancer, it became a lot. I was lucky to be in psychology, though, because I was able to see the signs and get professional help. It’s so easy to feel alone while you are going through this. When you get down like this you don’t want to take care of yourself, you don’t want to talk to people, and every step, whether school or personal, seems harder.”

This kind of reclusive behavior is becoming more common as modern luxuries make it easy to be alone. As society becomes more socially isolated, the consequences become more apparent. The need to be social, productive and wanted compounds over time and leads to drastic outcomes such as suicide.

“Solitary behavior has become easier in today’s age, as it’s much easier to seclude yourself from others,” Byrd-Craven said.” You can still survive if you build a wall, but in an ancestral environment, the ability to do that and still eat is severally limited. One of the things we do much less is to be physically active. Even when we do, we tend to do it wrong, often exercising for an hour and then sitting all day.”

Byrd-Craven said mechanisms that helped us evolve are sometimes misplaced in a modern environments. The need for an active social life has been replaced by desk jobs and social media.

But there are ways to overcome modern pressures and seclusive tendencies.

Former SGA Chair and Mental Health Week organizer Holland Grey said he relied on his friends' support to help him with depression.

“I’ve had depression most of my life, but junior year of high school was the peak of my suicidal idealizations,” Grey said. “When I came to college, I had to lock all my sharp objects in a box and give the key to friends because I was afraid that they would find me in my dorm not alive. It wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that I overcame it, and that’s when I became really interested in what types of mental health we offered on campus. I feel like people thought I was well put together and happy, but that wasn’t the case and I made it my mission… to promote a more inclusive environment and to encourage suicide prevention education across campus.”

Having family and close friends aware of the mental illness creates a system of support if the person suffering from the mental illness needs it.

“I would tell people to develop a good core social support system where you actually talk to people non-electronically,” Byrd-Craven said. “Those relationships are our biggest buffer to depression.”

The worst thing to do would be to just deal with the mental illness and hope it goes away on its own.

“If you keep it a secret, there’s not much your friends or family can do to help,” Wells said. “The more that we as a society can reduce the stigma of depression, the more help we can offer to people that might be resistant.

It’s something pretty common for people to experience, and if they’re struggling with it they should really reach out, though it can be difficult sometimes, and I really do belive that they will realize that people can be a lot more understanding.”

This can be easier said than done, though, for many people including the anonymous psychology student.

“I really struggled with classes because of all the stuff I was going through,” they said. ”I reached out to my professors, explained the situation, and most of them understood and were happy to work with me. One of them actually asked if I really wanted to be in college after we talked about it, but sometimes that’s just stuff you have to work through, and you can’t be dissuaded by the little things.”

Grey, having gone through major depression, is going on to graduate with distinction after chairing the most prestigious organization on campus.

“You don’t choose to have depression, but it is your choice if you want to get better,” Grey said. “It’s not easy, I remember that it took me a long time before I could start the process. You have to realize that you’re not perfect and you’re never going to be and that’s perfectly ok. It’s perfect to be perfectly imperfect.”

One in five students struggle with depression or anxiety. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or any other mental illnesses, please contact a licensed medical professional. For free professional counseling, call OSU Counselling Services at 405-744-5472.