A portrait of college depression: talking about mental illness

By Lauren Licona | gargoyle@flagler.edu

For many first-year students, college is an exciting time full of endless opportunity; new friends, new surroundings, and a newfound sense of freedom often define this youthful era.

But for some students, the so-called “golden years” of life are clouded by personal and psychological struggles. A 2013 study from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health revealed that 48.7 percent of college students surveyed attended counseling for mental health concerns, and another 32.9 percent have taken a medication for mental health concerns.

Psychologists have cited stress from course work, homesickness, money and problems with interpersonal relationships as major factors in the unmasking of mental illnesses in young adults.

With depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues so prevalent among college students, it’s only right that such problems be addressed. It’s easy to look past numbers and statistics, but often we forget the real people facing these struggles, and we owe it to ourselves and all our peers to have an open and honest dialogue about mental health on campus.

Alejandra Moreno is a first-year Flagler student from Nebraska. Easygoing, charismatic, and a member of the Student Government Association, Moreno at first glance appears every bit involved, happy, and well-adjusted. What others can’t tell from first glance, however, is that she has struggled with depression and anxiety for much of her life. In her dorm room, we sat down to have an in-depth conversation about her experiences.

Moreno in the courtyard at Flagler College.

Q: How long have you struggled with depression and anxiety? And what were some of the symptoms you experienced?

A: Since around eighth grade. I would distance myself by shutting myself in my room, I cried a lot because I felt like I wasn’t able to go out and do what some might say were normal things. It was hard for me to leave my room and socializing with people felt overwhelming.

Q: When did you know you needed to seek help?

A: I knew from the beginning my feelings weren’t healthy and I needed to get help. I didn’t want to at first because I was uncomfortable talking about what I was feeling. I tried therapy in school but I felt like it wasn’t helping me. I went to my doctor three weeks before move-in day and was prescribed anti-depressants. It took a bit of trial and error with the brand and dosage, but I feel much better now and I can say that they have really helped me.

Q: What would you say was the biggest difference between your life in Nebraska and your life here at Flagler? And did you find this difference beneficial or damaging to your mental health?

A: I was worried at first about how college would affect me, but it has really helped. Back home, there was a lot of bad energy affecting my mental health and I wanted to move away to separate myself from that. There’s much more positive energy here and a lot more opportunity to be social and involved without feeling pressured. The new environment and people helped, and I found that most people here want a fresh start just like I did.

Q: What aspect of college life did you find to be the hardest?

A: Forcing myself to communicate with new people and make new friendships in order to avoid feeling lonely and shut in like at home. I had to put myself out there, which was hard at first. I didn’t want to just lay in bed and not socialize. Back home, I was either at work or in bed, and I didn’t want it to be the same in college.

Q: Have you made use of any on campus mental health resources like the Palm Cottage?

A: I’ve talked to the nurse on campus and she has let me know that there are resources available if I need it. I feel comfortable seeking help if it ever got to that point, everyone in there was friendly and encouraging without seeming pushy.

Q: How do you handle your responsibilities as a student without feeling overwhelmed?

A: Whenever I start to get stressed over class or an assignment, I take time for myself and do things to relax like taking a nap or watching Netflix.

Q: What was most crucial to your recovery?

A: The medication definitely helped the most, as well as making effort to socialize and do the things that gave me the most anxiety.

Q: Looking back, if you had the chance to say something to your old self, what would you say?

A: I would tell myself that my feelings weren’t abnormal, that many other people were also struggling and could relate to my problems. It’s not weird to have depression and it wasn’t something I needed to feel ashamed about.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to a student who might be struggling with their mental health?

A: I would say to not wait to seek help like I did. Don’t close yourself off and talk to someone you can trust. You’re not alone, and it’s important to reach out.

Flagler College offers counseling to students who need it. Counseling services can be found in the Palm Cottage at 8 Valencia Street. Their hours are Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 5 p.m. If you or someone you know is having a crisis, call campus security at 819-6200 or 911.

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