Psychology of Depression Among College Students


Depression is one of the most prevalent health problems that college students have to contend with. It is incapacitating, and if untreated, it can have serious psychological, emotional, and physical consequences. Moreover, it has a negative influence on interpersonal functioning and academic performance. The prevalence of depression among college students has increased over the last decade, with many learners stating that mental health issues are among their main obstacles to academic excellence. A survey conducted in 2017 revealed that approximately 16 percent of college students cited depression as one of the factors that influenced their academic performance (Lam 48). In contemporary society, depression is more prevalent among young people than in adults. In that regard, it is imperative for institutions of higher learning to provide support and resources that will enable learners to address the challenge of depression. Depression has serious effects among college students: poor academic performance, the development of suicidal thoughts, social seclusion, failed relationships, and loss of zeal for goal achievement.

Types of Depression

Depression occurs in different forms among college students: major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder, minor depression, psychotic depression, and seasonal affective disorder. Each of these types manifests differently, even though they share common signs and symptoms. Major depressive disorder is characterized by feelings of despair for most days of the week and for the better part of the day (“What is Depression”). Individuals with this type usually encounter difficulty sleeping, they lose interest in pleasurable activities, harbor suicidal thoughts, and they are usually restless and agitated.

Dysthymic disorder refers to a mild but chronic form of depression that is characterized by less severe symptoms that last for long periods. It is not as extreme as major depression, even though it could interfere with everyday functioning (Ahmed et al.). Minor depression is not as severe as major depression and dysthymia. However, a lack of timely treatment increases the risk of progression to more severe forms. Psychotic depression manifests in very severe symptoms that could include some form of psychosis (Higuera). For instance, people with this form, report experiences of hallucinations and delusions. Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is common during the winter season (Lam 51). It does not have serious health implications because it usually clears during spring and summer.

Causes and Risk Factors

Feelings of sadness, loss of interest in daily activities, and fatigue are common for every person. However, if they persist for protracted periods and affect life substantially, then the problem could be depression. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is one of the most pervasive causes of disability in the world (“What is Depression”). It is a serious condition because it affects people of all ages and genders. The medical community has not yet established the main causes of depression. However, several factors have been cited as potential causes. These include genetic features, psychological and social factors, environmental factors, changes in the brain’s neurotransmitter levels, medical conditions, drug use, and early childhood trauma (Ahmed et al.).

Causes of depression in college include homesickness and loneliness, financial stress, academic stress, unregulated social media use, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor body image and self-esteem. These factors are common among college students, even though they might be responsible for the development of the disorder in the general population. Many students joining college are largely focused on the thrills of new experiences, making new friends, and enjoying more freedom. However, they ignore the magnitude of the changes happening in their lives and the need for them to adopt strategies to help them to cope (Higuera). Reality hits them after several months of handling the tough schedules, the pressure of social relationships, and the challenge of balancing the various responsibilities. Leaving home and relocating to a new city away from one’s family is the major cause of homesickness and loneliness among college students. A 2017 survey conducted by the American College Health Association (ACHA) revealed that about 62% of students in college agreed that loneliness was a challenge (Ahmed et al.). Many learners visit their families frequently during the holidays. However, the leap from childhood to adulthood can be a source of depression of individuals fail to cope properly.

Financial stress has been cited as one of the main causes of depression among college students. In the past few years, the cost of college education has increased exponentially. Affording tertiary education has become an insurmountable obstacle for many young people. This explains why many college students are depressed because they cannot afford to address all their financial needs. A 2015 report released by the National Student Financial Wellness Study showed that finances were the primary cause of persistent stress among 70% of college students (Higuera). A further 32% reported that at one time they had to halt their studies because of the inability to pay the money they owed. These situations have been associated with increased feelings of worry, anxiety, and stress (Lam 53). Their occurrence for prolonged periods without any mitigation could lead to depression. The pressure of succeeding in college causes depression because academic performance is linked directly with future career success. Academic pressure is heightened by parental involvement, highly competitive environments, and a lack of resilience when challenges emerge (Lam 74). The higher levels of critical thinking, commitment, research, and time management required in college can cause depression among students who lack the necessary skills to navigate the highly-demanding environment.

Feelings of depression are likely to emerge in students who have a poor body image and low self-esteem. The National Eating Disorders Association has revealed that students who have a negative body image are at a high risk of developing depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders than those with a positive body image (Ahmed et al.). Depression and alcohol abuse are interrelated according to Mental Health America (MHA). Depressed students spend a lot of their time drinking, while those who drink a lot experience more bouts of depression that the nondrinkers. Moreover, alcohol abuse can be a driving force towards risky behaviors that could give way to serious mental health problems. Drug and alcohol use can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression, if uncontrolled (Higuera). Unrestrained social media use has been associated with depression, low self-esteem, and a negative body image because of the students’ propensity to compare themselves with others (Twenge 114). The unrealistic standards regarding body image, sleep disruption, and the consumption of stressful content are factors that increase the risk of developing depression among college students.

Signs and Symptoms

The general signs and symptoms of depression among college students include persistent feelings of sadness, lack of interest in daily activities, difficulties focusing, guilt, disconnection from feelings, and insomnia. Others include fatigue, persistent body aches, the development of suicidal thoughts, a decrease or increase in appetite, and irregular sleep patterns (“What is Depression”). College schedules are very demanding, and dealing with the pressures of new lifestyles and cultures can be stressful. These signs and symptoms are observed in students who experience difficulties dealing with the aforementioned changes.

Depressed college students often report difficulties with concentrating on schoolwork because of the pervasive feeling of being overwhelmed. Simple tasks such as writing papers, completing assignments, and attending classes become difficult to do. These can be linked with the loss of interest in day-to-day activities that were once interesting. Failure to enjoy college life can result in a persistent feeling of sadness that can affect one’s academic and social endeavors (Higuera). One of the most common indicators of depression among college students is a disconnection from one’s feelings (Twenge 108). This is characterized by an inability to articulate how one is feeling at any given time. Consequently, feelings of despair, hopelessness, helplessness, and apathy paralyze the individual, leaving them feeling powerless.

Guilt is another sign of depression among college students. The behaviors of students experiencing challenging times could be taxing to others, leading to harsh criticisms. This situation is worsened by the feeling of helplessness that serves as an obstacle to lasting change (Keyes 64). As a result, the students experience an overwhelming feeling of guilt because their behaviors become burdensome to those around them. Depression can be identified from the existence of persistent head or body aches that do not respond to common treatment remedies (Landau 54). Other signs of depression in college include irregular sleep patterns that can be characterized by a lack of sleep or oversleeping, suicidal thoughts, and social seclusion.


The early detection of depression in college students is critical because it prevents its progression to paralyzing levels. The college environment is very stressful, especially for new students. Therefore, it is important for parents, counselors, faculty members, and friends to get involved if they observe signs of depression in a learner (Keyes 68). In many instances, students refrain from seeking professional help because of the stigma that is associated with depression, particularly among men. Therefore, faculty members should be observant of every student and monitor their responses toward assignments and class projects. Frequent absence from classes, failure to complete assignments, and sudden changes in behavior could be a sign of depression (Keyes 69). With regard to relationships, social exclusion and loss of interest in fun activities could signal the onset of depression and a call for professional help. Students should visit counseling centers and health centers for professional mental health assistance.

Diagnosis involves a student’s evaluation by a mental health care provider or physician. In that regard, the physician could ask the student about their symptoms, personal history of depression, the family’s history of depression, medical history, alcohol or drug abuse, and the existence of death or suicide thoughts (Ahmed et al.). The physician could also inquire about the student’s moods, activity level, appetite, sleep quality, and thought patterns. It is important for the health care provider to confirm the disorder because other medical conditions can cause symptoms that are similar to those of depression. Therefore, a physical examination and blood tests could be conducted to rule out the possibility of other conditions. Research has shown that vitamin D deficiency and thyroid problems can manifest in a similar way as depression (“Depression”). Students should be very observant because, even though it is normal for people to experience mood variations, a lack of improvement over prolonged periods could signal mental problems. If unidentified and treated, depression could cause several complications, including physical pain, panic attacks, social isolation, self-harm, drastic weight gain or loss, and suicide.


The early detection and treatment of depression is important, especially among college students, and it involves three major components, namely support, psychotherapy, and drugs. Support encompasses a wide variety of activities such as educating family members about the disorder and exploring practical solutions like changes in diet and lifestyle alterations (Haddad and Boyce 65). For instance, the health care provider can teach the students about stress-relieving activities such as mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises. Research has shown that these activities are effective in helping depressed people lower their stress levels. Engaging in physical exercise, reading, and journaling are also strategies that students can use to alleviate stress.

Psychotherapy is a depression treatment method that involves talking with individuals to either change their behavior or thinking patterns. There are several forms of psychotherapy that have been shown to produce positive results: cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (Haddad and Boyce 69). CBT is a psycho-social intervention that aims to change the thinking and behaviors of patients by altering their cognitive distortions, regulating emotions, and imparting coping strategies. Primarily, the psychotherapist focuses on helping the individual change their automatic thoughts that paper automatically and replace them with objective, realistic, and positive ones (Landau 61). Spontaneous negative thoughts have a negative influence on mood and emotional stability. CBT encompasses a wide range of approaches, including cognitive therapy, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), multimodal therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) (Haddad and Boyce 71). IPT helps students to address conflicts in relationships that could be a source of stress, and a contributing factor to their depression.

Research has shown that a combination of medications and psychotherapy is the best form of treatment for depression among college students. The three types of drugs used for treatment include antidepressants, antianxiety, and antipsychotic medications (Landau 68). Many physicians prescribe antidepressants because they have been shown to treat mild to severe depression effectively. Several classes of these drugs are available, namely selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), tricyclic antidepressants, atypical antidepressants, and selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) (Lam 97). Each of these drugs works on a specific neurotransmitter or a group of neurotransmitters to alleviate the symptoms of the disorder. SSRIs and SNRIs can cause nausea, weight loss, sexual dysfunction, low blood sugar, diarrhea, and constipation (Lam 98). Therefore, they should be used in the manner prescribed by the doctor.

In very severe cases of depression, therapy and medication might not work. In those cases, physicians might recommend three alternative treatment modalities: electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) (Haddad and Boyce 87). These remedies aim to stimulate specific brain areas that control mod to function better. ECT utilized electrical pulses to alleviate sever depressive and psychotic symptoms (Heitler 94). It is mainly used in the treatment of psychotic depression. TMS is a common treatment option that applies magnetic fields to certain brain nerve cells in order to improve mood through stimulation. VNS is an invasive approach through which weak electrical pulses are channeled to the brain through the vagus nerve with the aid of an implant.

Management and the Improvement of Mental Health

College life is very demanding, and it is necessary for students to adopt routines of self-care in order to avoid stress and anxiety that could lead to depression. There are several activities that help students improve their mental health and the overall quality of life. These include engaging in physical exercise, eating a healthy diet, refraining from alcohol and drug abuse, building a support system, getting enough sleep, and practicing mindfulness (Heitler 101). One of the risk factors that predispose college students to depression is a lack of sufficient sleep. A report released by the University of Michigan Depression Center, approximately 70% of depressed patients experience problems with their sleep (Landau 71). Students should get between seven and nine hours of sleep, failure to which they could experience mental health problems.

Physical exercise is one of the most effective strategies that students can use to avoid the development of depression. The release of endorphins from body movements alleviate stress by breaking negative thought patterns that enhance depression. Students could engage in activities such as weight training in the gym, swimming, playing sports, and jogging (Heitler 112). The consumption of unhealthy foods is a common phenomenon in colleges. Eating healthy foods promotes feelings of wellbeing and lowers the risk of developing depressive symptoms (Landau 78). Research has shown that drugs and alcohol enhance the symptoms of depression. Therefore, it is important for college students to avoid abusing these substances that could have a negative influence on their mental health. Mindfulness helps individuals to identify the onset of depression symptoms and deal with them before the condition worsens (“Depression”). Activities such as mediation and breathing exercises can be used to practice mindfulness, and as a result, fight off depression. A social support is one of the most important aspects of improving one’s mental health. Such a system could include a roommate, a peer, or a faculty member. Research has shown that a support system can help to improve one’s mental health significantly. The assistance offered lowers the buildup of stress that is associated with dealing with crisis situations, addressing everyday challenges, and making critical decisions (Landau 87). With the recent advancements in technology, it is easier to get support from family and relatives as innovations provide effective communication channels. Moreover, students can join online support groups and participate anonymously in case they are afraid of stigmatization.


Depression is one of the most common mental disorders that afflict college students. Making a shift from high school to college is an exciting period for many teenagers. However, the move is characterized by numerous challenges that possess the potential to create stress. Creating new friendships, handling more demanding schedules, dealing with high academic and social standards, and facing new experiences could lead to the development of depression. This is common among young people who lack the skills needed for adopting change. Depression among college students is caused by homesickness and loneliness, financial stress, academic stress, unregulated social media use, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor body image and self-esteem. Common signs and symptoms include persistent feelings of sadness, lack of interest in daily activities, difficulties focusing, deep guilt, disconnection from feelings, and insomnia. Others include fatigue, persistent body aches, and irregular sleep patterns. Diagnosis involves an evaluation of the student’s moods, activity level, appetite, and thought patterns. Blood tests might be done to rule out the possibility of other conditions that have similar symptoms. Treatment for depression is threefold: support, psychotherapy, and medication. It is important for college students to engage in physical exercise, eat healthy diets, get enough sleep, join support groups, and avoid alcohol and drug use in order to avoid developing depression.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Gutema, et al. “Prevalence and Associated Factors of Depression among Jimma University Students: A Cross-Sectional Study.” International Journal of Mental Health Systems, vol. 14, no. 52, 2020, Web.

“Depression”. National Institute of Mental Health, Web.

Haddad, Mark, and Philip Boyce. Fast Facts: Depression. 4th ed., Kerger Medical and Scientific Publishers, 2017.

Heitler, Susan. Prescriptions without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety, and More. Morgan James Publishing, 2016.

Higuera, Valencia. “Everything You Want To Know about Depression.” Healthline, 2020, Web.

Keyes, Lee. Delivering Effective College Mental Health Services. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Lam, Raymond W. Depression. 3rd ed., Oxford University press, 2018.

Landau, Carol. Mood Prep 101: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Depression and Anxiety in College-Bound Teens. Oxford University Press, 2020.

Twenge, Jean M. IGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, less Happy, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

“What is Depression?” American Psychiatric Association, Web.

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