Mayo Clinic Health Library

College depression: What parents need to know

Updated: 09-05-2013

Helping your child make the emotional transition to college can be a major undertaking. Know how to identify whether your child is having trouble dealing with this new stage of life — and what you can do to help.

What is college depression and why are college students vulnerable to it?

Depression is an illness that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. College depression isn't a clinical diagnosis. Instead, college depression is depression that begins during college.

College students face many challenges, pressures and anxieties that can cause them to feel overwhelmed. They might be living on their own for the first time and feeling homesick. They're also likely adapting to a new schedule and workload, adjusting to life with roommates, and figuring out how to belong. Money and intimate relationships can also serve as major sources of stress. Dealing with these changes during the transition from adolescence to adulthood can trigger or unmask depression during college in some young adults.

What are the impacts of college depression?

Depression during college has been linked to:

  • Impaired academic performance
  • Smoking
  • Risky behaviors related to alcohol abuse, such as having unsafe sex

What are the signs that a student is dealing with college depression?

Many college students occasionally feel sad or anxious, but these emotions pass within a few days. Untreated depression persists and interferes with normal activities.

Signs and symptoms that a student might be experiencing depression during college include:

  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
  • Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixation on past failures, or self-blame when things aren't going right
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
  • Crying spells for no apparent reason
  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches

What should I do if I suspect my child is experiencing college depression?

Signs and symptoms of depression might be difficult to notice if your child is no longer living at home. College students also might have difficulty seeking help for depression out of embarrassment or fear of not fitting in.

If you suspect that your child might be dealing with depression, talk to him or her about what's going on and listen. Encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings. Also, ask him or her to make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. Many colleges offer mental health services.

Remember, depression symptoms might not get better on their own — and depression might get worse if it isn't treated. Untreated depression can lead to other mental and physical health issues or problems in other areas of life. Feelings of depression can also increase the likelihood of substance abuse and the risk of suicide.

How can I help my child cope with depression during college?

In addition to seeking treatment, your child can take steps to feel better. For example, encourage your student to:

  • Take it one step at a time. Encourage your child to avoid making major decisions, such as changing majors, or doing too many things at once. Instead, break up large tasks into small ones.
  • Participate in activities. Urge your child to get involved in activities that he or she enjoys, which might help diminish or shift focus away from his or her negative feelings. Physical activity can be particularly helpful.
  • Seek support. Encourage your child to get to know people in his or her dorm and classes. Friends can help your child feel more comfortable in a new environment. Family can be a great source of support, too.

How can I help prevent college depression?

There's no sure way to prevent depression during college. However, helping your child become accustomed to his or her college campus before the start of the school year can prevent your child from feeling overwhelmed by the transition. Encourage your child to visit the campus and talk to other students, peer counselors or faculty about what to expect and where to turn for support.

If your college-bound child has risk factors for or a history of depression, talk to your child's doctor about what kind of counseling options might best help your child with the transition to college. In addition, help your child become familiar with campus counseling resources.

Remember, getting treatment at the earliest sign of a problem can relieve symptoms, prevent depression from returning and help students succeed in college.

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