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There are few variables that can upend your college performance more profoundly than a mood disorder, particularly anxiety or depression. Studies have shown that 40-50% of college and university students suffer moderate depression, and about as many are on some kind of anti-depressant as of 2010. And the 2020 pandemic has only made things worse.
Perhaps it is not surprising that young adults have difficulty in the transition years to adulthood, especially when entering university or college. For many of them, this is the first time they have total responsibility for their housing, their meals, their laundry, their personal safety, and their finances. And many will suffer from loneliness being away from their friends and their hometown, while others suffer their first emotional breakups with new partners. And with a deeper desire to connect or fit in, many may worsen their situation with some poor coping mechanisms, like substance abuse–binge-drinking, smoking, marijuana use, and excess caffeine intake–or with maladaptive lifestyle habits, like poor sleep patterns, poor personal hygiene, impulsive eating habits, risky sexual behaviors, and limited exercise routines.
If it is your first time experiencing depression symptoms, you may not recognize them for what they are, but they are all highly disruptive to your academic routine, and it is easy to see why. Here are a few: Poor concentration, irritability, poor sleep, ruminating, impulsivity, anti-social behavior, change in appetite (leading to weight gain or loss), poor self-esteem, pessimism, hopelessness, loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities, profound sadness, emptiness or worthlessness, restlessness, and an inability to get out of bed. Recognize any of these in yourself? While it is true that most people can suffer some of these symptoms occasionally, what makes for a diagnosis is both the severity of the symptoms and how long you have had them for. Most simply put, if you have had several of these symptoms long enough to adversely affect your schoolwork or your relationships, you have a problem that needs to be addressed.
Although every case is different, in both possible causes, severity, and appropriate treatment, it is worth wading through your options. First, the more significant your symptoms are, the more important it is to seek professional help, even if you are resistant to doing this. Virtually all learning institutions have on-site or online resources for counseling and mental health support that your tuition covers, so it is critically important for you to reach out to any of them. They will all treat your circumstances completely confidentially, and direct you to whatever continuing care or support you need. If things are not going well for you, reaching out can save your semester, and maybe even your life. You may feel like you are the only one going through this, and your tendency to self-isolate may worsen this, but you are hardly alone in your struggles.
If you have some early symptoms, there are some simple things to consider. You may find just chatting with a trusted friend can be helpful. They can give you a feeling of being valued and cared for, and may assure you with their own similar feelings that may allow you to commiserate–talking about your symptoms is almost always helpful.
What could be great about this? For some, depressive symptoms are little more than a grim acceptance of a reality that you had not faced before. for example, you have just realized that your boyfriend doesn’t love you as much as you had hoped, or you really don’t have a good handle on your finances, or you really do need to put in more time into your studies (and/or less time at parties), or you don’t know how to get through a course you don’t like, or you are not as “naturally” smart as you thought, or…you get the idea. While all of these are challenges, they are all fixable with a change in perspective. Ask yourself instead, what could be great about this? For example, leaving this boyfriend may actually open the playing field for you, not understanding your finances can force you to sit down with a financial counselor to get it right and learn how to budget, and accepting that you have study problems may force you to see an academic counselor or a librarian to learn some useful parameters to improve your academic skills–that are better than what you were using in high school.
Consider yourself a slow learner. When entering a new environment, like a college or university, it is easy to feel intimidated by the capable students and professors that you are in contact with, to the point where you might even feel that you do not belong. But remember this: while it is unlikely that you are the smartest kid on campus, it is just as unlikely that you are the dumbest either. Instead, think only that you are in the middle of the pack, and you just have to work as hard as you can to keep up, even if that means taking fewer courses to begin with. You need to find your personal rhythm regarding how much you need to study for each course–and stop comparing yourself to others. If you have to, just consider yourself a slow learner compared to everyone else, someone who needs an extra hour or two every week to stay on top of your schoolwork. Remember that there are people that are dyslexic, that are color-blind, that have brain injuries, and that have other legitimate learning disabilities that all successfully get through college; they do so by acknowledging their limitations and honor them with accommodations, like extra study time. You can do this too.
You will be a great mentor someday. Stepping into adulthood is itself, the school of hard knocks. It is a time where you can be intensely lonely. It can be a time you may develop trust issues with strangers when you can be bullied, abused, or even assaulted. It is a time when you will make new friends but also have emotional breakups with the first love(s) of your life. It is a time when you and only you will be making important decisions that will affect the rest of your life. And it is the time when you are trying to forge a vision that will uniquely satisfy your interests and abilities as you choose school programs. And yet, if you have faith, you will survive this turbulent time, just as millions have before you. And when you do, you will have a story to tell, and solid advice to give to someone who will follow you. So embrace the process, because it will make you wiser, and you will be able to help someone else–remember that mentoring someone is always a great feeling.
Managing your mood, and keeping it stable is part of the maturing process, but it will be key to keeping your studies running smoothly. When things aren’t going well, first admit this insight to yourself, that you could be doing some things better, and change what you can (check some of the previous posts for some ideas on this). If that is not enough, seek the professional help that is available to you on campus–promptly!