College Students Report Stress and Depression

Stress in collegeAn Associated Press-mtvU poll indicates that college students are often stressed – 85% of the respondents indicated that they sometimes or frequently felt stressed in the three months prior to the survey. Worries about schoolwork, grades, and finances topped the list of sources of stress. Family and relationship stress were reported by over half of those surveyed. While high levels of stress may not be surprising to anyone who has attended college or university, the more concerning finding of the survey is the report by many students of depressive symptoms.

Students indicated how often they experienced symptoms of depression, including depressed mood, loss of pleasure in things they used to enjoy, and sleep disturbances. Several respondents indicated that for “several days,” “more than half the days,” or “nearly every day” they experienced symptoms:

  • 69% felt tired or had little energy
  • 55% experienced sleep disturbances
  • 42% felt depressed or hopeless
  • 38% felt little pleasure in doing things
  • 37% reported low self-esteem or excessive guilt
  • 11% reported thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Although many of the students indicated that they had someone to whom they could confide if they were feeling serious emotional distress, only 16% said that they had sought counselling. The symptoms described above, which are used by psychologists and physicians when diagnosing a depressive disorder, represent a serious clinical problem when they occur together; these feelings represent more than just “the blues.” Interestingly, many of the students surveyed may have been unaware of the seriousness of their difficulties – despite their reports of stress and depression, nearly ¾ of the students described themselves as somewhat or very happy. For some people, perhaps youth in particular, it is difficult to reconcile these negative feelings with their image of themselves as happy people. Thus, they may continue to think of themselves as happy but report frequent stress and depression; perhaps they consider these to be typical of the college experience. Although many students recover on their own when the stress levels go down (e.g., after exams), they may be unaware of behaviours that could reduce their symptoms and make their college experience a more enjoyable one.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Activity is the enemy of depression.” It’s often used to refer to the notion that the low energy and mood associated with depression can lead to social withdrawal; unfortunately, sitting alone at home can worsen the situation. Many psychologists believe that ‘rumination,’ or contemplating one’s difficulties, is linked to maintaining a depressed mood rather than relieving it. Therapy has proven to be effective in addressing depressive symptoms; therapists can help students cope with stress and reduce depressed mood. Yoga and meditation have also been shown to improve response to stress – we wrote a brief description of research that found these techniques to be protective against stress at the cellular level. Exercise is also important. Among adolescents, physical activity is linked to a reduction in depressive symptoms (according to a study in Psychology of Sport and Exercise), and there have been other studies indicating that exercise is protective against stress and low mood – I found 420,000 studies on Google Scholar. For college students and others who are feeling the effects of stress or depressed mood, it’s important to make an effort to be active and to consider getting help!

You can read the AP-mtvU survey here – they have video interviews and multiple charts!

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