At times, Alyson Brown can’t eat or sleep. Some days, she sleeps for hours during the day. Other days, she has panic attacks that feel like heart attacks. This has happened in cycles throughout her life, she says. She suffers from depression.
And although she graduated from college in December getting there while dealing with depression made school a lot more difficult.
Video by: Inma Mateos
College students with depression often run into more difficulties than the typical student. Those who struggle the most don’t connect with the help they need. Sometimes, their disease is invisible because many don’t feel comfortable informing their professors or friends about their condition and their symptoms often get misread as poor classroom or social performance.
“I think that in other people’s eyes I would look weak if I told them that I’m just sad a lot,” Brown said. Yet, she had a full ride scholarship, good grade-point average, full-time job while in school that she kept after graduating. She said she has a great boyfriend, a house and food on the table, yet wonders what her problem is.
Dr. Michelle Weckmann, UI assistant professor of psychiatry, said about 40 percent of the college students she sees at the Community Mental Health Center in Iowa City and at the Counseling and Health Promotions Center at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics have depression.
Depression is a biological disease just like high blood pressure is, Weckmann said, but can trigger precipitating life events in one’s life related to work, classes and sports as well as alcohol use.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines depression as a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated or disinterested in life in general and estimates that nearly 7 percent of U.S. adults 18 years and older have major depressive episodes (MDE).
Eleven percent of 123,078 students in the United States who took a national student health survey in spring 2013 said they were diagnosed or treated for depression within the past year. The survey, called the National College Health Assessment, was conducted by the National College Health Association.
Eight percent of the 930 UI students who took the survey said they were diagnosed or treated for depression within the past year. The rate was 11 percent for the 561 University of Northern Iowa students who took the survey. Eight percent of the 878 Iowa State University students who took the survey, but in 2012, said they had been diagnosed or treated for depression within the past year.
Three of every 10 undergraduate and graduate students among the 1,788 seeking help from the UI Student Counseling Services during the 2012-13 school year were diagnosed with depression, according to Paula Keeton, assistant clinical director of the UI’s Student Counseling Services.
Weckmann offered a list of factors that can help increase resilience to depression: having good social support from friends, family and church, regular exercise and a healthy diet, limiting the use of drugs and alcohol or not using at all. Having a sense of purpose or helping others through volunteer work or caring for a pet are on her list, too.
Also on the list is maintaining treatment. Weckmann said that can include therapy, meditation, medications, and lifestyle changes such as exercise and social engagement.
Brown, 22, of Oelwein, graduated with a degree in journalism and mass communications. She said she first experienced sadness at age 6 after the death of her grandmother. “That’s when I realized that life was not necessarily that happy,” she said. “She was my closest grandma and was kind of the world to me.”
Brown was diagnosed at age 12 with chronic depression after a school counselor who had known her since she was a young child noticed a change in her personality in seventh grade.
“She noticed that I wasn’t the smiley kid that I used to be,” Brown said. “She noticed that I was cutting myself and I had dropped a notebook somewhere that had some stuff written in it about thinking about killing myself, so she pulled me out of class, made me take a bunch of tests, called my parents from work and we had a big meeting and that’s when it all started.”
For now, Brown relies on an anti-depressant for panic attacks. She also said she relies on the support of her boyfriend.
Brown sought help through UI Student Counseling Services while in college, but she said she was not satisfied with the service. She said the psychologist she met with for 20 minutes gave her a negative response when talking about her anxiety.
“He told me as best as I can remember, ‘I’m tired of all of you girls coming in here and saying you have anxiety. You’re just stressed; this is college. Get used to it.’”
Julie Corkery, a UI Student Counseling Services psychologist, said she was sorry that Brown had this experience and that wishes Brown had tried another counselor at Student Counseling Services. “Although each individual counselor tries to stretch to meet the needs of a broad range of people, mismatches sometimes occur,” she said.
Experiences differ. Michael O’Donnell, a UI journalism and mass communications junior diagnosed with depression about a year ago, said his psychologist at the UI Student Counseling Services has helped him with academic troubles.
“He offers keen insights every session, as well as supplies me with assignments to work on between appointments,” O’Donnell said. “To be honest, just having a sympathetic listener, one who’s also well versed in the weird working of the mind, is a huge help.”
DIFFICULTIES DETECTING DEPRESSION
Frank Durham, associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the UI, said depression is difficult to spot in the college setting unless a student personally expresses his or her distress to the professor.
“Above all, I am not a clinician. So, when students seem to be in distress, I tell them that counseling is possible and potentially helpful,” Durham said. “I then refer them to the university counseling service. Above all, I try to be sympathetic.”
The UI Student Counseling Service offers training for UI faculty members upon request. Training includes a presentation containing information on how to detect depression in students and the steps to take following that. Kathleen Staley, the counseling service’s assistant outreach director, said one presentation has been given to faculty members so far this year. She said she did not know how many faculty members attended.
Like many others, including Brown, O’Donnell said he didn’t tell his professors or supervisors about his depression.
“I hesitated at first to ask for help because to me, saying I’m depressed and can’t work seems like a lame excuse,” O’Donnell said. “Every other student gets their work done without problems, and I guess it just makes me feel weak to have to ask for extensions.”
Alexandra Bushby, 23, didn’t tell others either.
A December UI graduate, Bushby went from being a straight A student at the beginning of her undergraduate studies to not being able to get through classes. She said she spent the majority of her college days in her room unable to leave because she couldn’t stop crying.
She said she feels her professors and supervisors don’t consider that she has a serious medical illness. Bushby, of Des Moines, graduated with a degree in linguistics and a minor in Arabic.
“I would fake illnesses,” she said. “If I say I have the flu, they say ‘oh, that’s fine stay home,’ but if I say ‘I can’t stop crying,’ they say ‘well that’s not legitimate, you need to get into work.’”
Bushby also sought help through UI Student Counseling Services three times during her time at the UI but said she was turned off by the experience. “They gave me just the most generic B.S. I have ever heard,” she said. “They were like, ‘well life is for living and you should just be happy and your problems aren’t really that bad.’”
Bushby’s problems started when she was diagnosed at the age of 6 with acid reflux. She was vomiting several times a day and doctors said she had bulimia. She said doctors talked to her a lot about body image and she began worrying about whether she was fat. She attributes that to the development of her low self-esteem and later, depression.
Bushby said she had been on various types of antidepressants since she was 13 years old but has been off the medications for about a year and planned to stay off for good. She said her mother, whom she has gotten much closer to recently, and her fiancé of one year have helped her cope with her depression.
Support has not always been there from men she has dated. She said she once dated a man who asked her to tell her something not many people know about her.
“I said ‘I have had severe depression since I was 13.’
“And straight up he said, ‘ah, I’m not dealing with that.’ ”
SENSE OF HELPLESSNESS
Brown’s mother, Theresa Brown, who lives in Oelwein and also has suffered from depression, said she felt completely helpless when she and her daughter were going through depression at the same time.
“We went through some scary things,” she said. “She passed out on me at Walmart; she wasn’t eating and I didn’t know. We called the ambulance, took her to the hospital and found out she was cutting (herself).”
Brown’s mother was able to help her daughter cope with low self-esteem and stress in college after her own treatment. She said she often tries to help Alyson work through relapses by encouraging her to do things that have worked before for her daughter such as breathing, yoga and running.
Alyson Brown said it would be a lot easier if people around her were more understanding of mental illnesses.
“It really does hurt sometimes when some people disregard or play down mental health issues,” she said. “Students make jokes all the time and say things like ‘why don’t you just go kill yourself?’ Having been there, it’s a little hurtful…or maybe I am just sensitive.”A version of this story was published by The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA).