College Students and Depression

How to know when homesickness is something more. 

By Anne Vaccaro Brady


The symptoms of mental illness often first appear between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the JED Foundation, whose mission is to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college students. Add to this the stressors associated with all the new experiences involved in transitioning to college, and it’s clear why 30 percent of college students said they were “so depressed that it was difficult to function” in a 2009 survey conducted by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment.

After reading in my local newspaper about two college students who committed suicide, I began wondering how I’d recognize when my own college students were depressed and where I’d find help for them.

I hope this post assists you in knowing when to intervene and how to overcome any stigma you may have about mental illness. As one expert I interviewed explained, if your child became diabetic, you’d get them medical care. Depression is an illness as well and requires treatment.

At the end of this post, you’ll find links to important resources for parents and students on maintaining emotional health during the college years.

Understanding what’s going on I often compare teenagers going off to college to young adults being drafted into military service. Everything about their life changes—where they sleep, who they live with, what they eat, how their days are structured. For some college kids, there isn’t a familiar face in sight on day one. For an 18-year-old, that’s a lot of change in one large dose.

Commuter students face other challenges, like trying to juggle a full-time class schedule with a full- or part-time job, and trying to make new friends when they spend more time off-campus than on.

“The best years of your life” myth Too many well-meaning adults tell this lie to college freshmen, recalling their own college days through a filtered lens. College is hard, whether or not a student lives on campus, and phrases like these can leave a teenager feeling disappointed with their own experience, and themselves.

Dr. Emil Rodolfa, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of California, Davis, agrees that parents shouldn’t put such expectations on their children. “Hopefully, the best time of your life is ahead of you, not during college,” he said.

Recognizing your freshman’s unhappiness The experts I reached out to emphasize keeping the lines of communication open, before and after your teen leaves for college.

given up.

(Photo credit: and.e.)

Hopefully, you and your new college student spoke about their concerns and expectations before they headed off to their new school. Check out my post on advice other parents have shared with their college freshmen.

I don’t advocate helicopter parenting, but I do believe parents should talk or text with their college student regularly and ask questions. Start with the basics, like “How’s it going?” or “What did you have for dinner tonight? Did you make time for breakfast, too?” or “Are you getting enough sleep?” “Which classes did you have today?” and “What did you do on the weekend?” These are all ways to check on whether your teen is keeping some type of normal pattern.

The answers to a few of these questions should give you a clue as to whether your freshman is adjusting to their new life or struggling. Skyping or FaceTiming once in a while, to “see” how your student is doing, doesn’t hurt either.

There are also other signs. “If their child is always coming home on the weekends, parents should discuss if they are coming home or leaving the university,” explained Rodolfa.

Checking in on your college student in-person can be helpful, if done the right way. “A visit is good, but constant visiting may interfere with the child making friends and may feel intrusive,” he added.

When homesickness becomes depression Dr. Jane L. Pearson, chair of the Suicide Research Consortium of the National Institute of Mental Health, recommends a student talk with someone, probably starting with a parent, when “you’re starting to feel like you can’t sleep and you’re stressing out and it’s taking longer than a week or two to get through this and you’re finding you can’t concentrate, where you’re worried you can’t function, anything like that.”

As a parent, you want to be clued in to these problems. “Usually with depression, the question is how long has this been going on,” added Pearson. “Is it more than a couple of days? Is it going into two weeks? Then you should be concerned. Most people can start bouncing out of something [by then].”

Rodolfa advises parents to listen for three things: “1. I don’t like who I am. 2. I am all alone. 3. Things are never going to change here.”

Your teen might not say these things directly to you, but their Facebook page or Twitter feed might hold some answers. “I think there is a reason people post on Facebook or Twitter…they are expressing how they are doing, and so this is one piece of information,” he explained. “But of course the best way to get information is [for parents] to discuss [this] with their children.”

Don’t ignore comments about suicide “I would say if anyone’s talking about suicide, you’ve got to take it seriously,” advises Pearson. “People used to say that’s a gesture, a way to get attention, so on. We have to take them all seriously. Even if somebody doesn’t have a plan, for them to say that, must mean they’re pretty miserable. It’s always easier to work with somebody when a problem’s just beginning than when it’s gotten to a really bad situation.”

If you think your student is in immediate danger, or even if you’re not sure, you, or your child, can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (I-800-273-8255).

Helping your student get help “Parents should talk first with their children, and then if the parents are having trouble communicating with their child, it may be time to reach out to others,” said Rodolfa.

“Colleges usually offer short-term counseling and assessment so that any student can walk in and the counseling staff will assess and determine what would be most helpful,” he continued. “Counseling centers also offer urgent care services and are available for students in crisis. Counseling centers will know community resources and will be able to refer to the community if the student needs more services than what is available through the counseling center.”

If you’re concerned about your student, you can contact their RA or the residence hall staff. The Dean of Students is another resource. Both the Health Center and Counseling Center will take calls from parents, although, because of privacy laws, they can’t tell you if your student has been in touch with them already unless your teen has signed a release.

To find out what’s available at your kid’s college, visit the college’s website and search “counseling services.”

Before it’s needed, check that your student is on an insurance plan that will cover counseling services.

What talking with a doctor or counselor can do Treatment for mental illness involves psychotherapy (talk therapy) or medication, and often a combination of both. Pearson points out that before a patient is given any treatment, the doctor or counselor will do a thorough interview to find out his or her specific symptoms.

“When somebody does get the opportunity to talk to somebody, to get medication, in most situations, especially [at] colleges and college counseling centers…it’s an opportunity to figure out how to manage stressors like this again,” explains Pearson. “So it is really an opportunity to figure out how to learn some life skills.”

Resources You Can Access Now Bookmark these websites to learn more and ensure they’re handy if you ever need them.  

The JED Foundation created this very useful guide on how parents can protect their teen’s mental health. They also have additional information for parents and students accessible through this page.  

The National Institute of Mental Health has a guide on college students and depression that answers their most frequently asked questions. The information is helpful for parents, too.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention addresses issues like what to do if someone you know seems suicidal.

University of California, Davis Student Health and Counseling Services offers advice for parents on helping your student adjust to college life on this part of their website.

Transition year This site, created by the JED Foundation, has specific sections for parents and students on maintaining emotional health as a teen transitions to college.

I plan to follow-up on this topic in later posts, but please share your own advice, experiences and thoughts in the comments section below.

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5 Responses to College Students and Depression

  1. Greg says:

    A lot of your advice is based on the assumption that children feel comfortable sharing their feelings with their parents. In an ideal world, we would all strive to have clear lines of communication between parents and children, but this is rarely the case. It is well documented that depression is often impossible to diagnose even by close friends and loved ones. Some of the students that have taken their lives recently have been described as well liked and having many friends. It is all too easy to assume that “loners” or “shy” people are the ones who would suffer from depression. Very often, it is the most unexpected of people.

    Your insinuation that commuters or students who come home on weekends are more prone to being depressed is completely at odds with the recent headlines. In most cases we see that the kids who have decided to take their own life were living on campus, surrounded by thousands of their peers. Sometimes being surrounded by tens of thousands of people and not feeling like you fit in is much worse than simply being alone, and it angers me that students are often discouraged from returning home or commuting. Clearly these students have a comfort zone and a good support system that they feel comfortable returning to if things aren’t going so well. Adversity and change should never be faced head on without support. Too many parents think that independence is a synonym for doing it by yourself. No one gets anywhere in life alone.

    I also think that too many parents condone the, “college experience.” Looking back at their college days through rose colored glasses, parents remember the parties and the good times, but forget all the negative associated with this. Colleges sell students and parents on this notion of college experience, but we fail to define what this really is: it is too often a culture based on binge drinking, promiscuity, and peer pressure. Why do parents condone this? Because all parents have this fear that their child won’t “fit in.” Instead of being proud of their child for being different, and for using college as an EDUCATIONAL TOOL, they rather their child fall in line with the social tides; To do as everyone else does and not risk being considered an outcast. No doubt, college should be a social experience, but in the end it is a tool to further oneself academically and to eventually find a carreer path. Tell me the last time an employer asked on an interview, “can you do a keg stand?” The answer is, never.

    Last but not least, DEPRESSION IS NOT A SYNONYM FOR SADNESS. Depression is a disease, a chemical imbalance that causes people to do illogical things and feel illogical feelings. Homesickness, while frustrating, is not depression. We live in a world where the term depression is thrown around carelessly. Thinking that simply talking to your child can avoid all issues, is narrowminded. Very few children are completely honest with their parents about their feelings and are often scared to share the true sickness in their thoughts. Many great parents have had children affected by depression. Having a depressed child does not make a parent terrible, nor does having a child who is well-adjusted make one a great parent. Don’t be ashamed if your child is not Mr. or Mrs. Popularity. It is not a reflection on you as a parent. If anything, take the time to reassure them that it is okay to go against the grain and to be different. We teach our young children to be “unique” and then we throw this sentiment out the window as soon as high school and college rolls around. Perhaps, some reassurance that they are not doing something wrong would be more helpful than advice on how to do what you think is right.

    • As a parent I think what Rodolfa is saying about kids who come home every weekend and what you are saying are not at odds. I would want to know if my child felt like he or she needed to escape from the culture at the college because it was too party-oriented and there was no alternative culture there that felt comfortable. If that were the case, this might be reason enough to change colleges and find a setting that is more in line with the child’s values, one where he or she could have a rewarding education and social experience; where he or she could thrive rather than just struggle to get through. I know kids who have switched colleges for these reasons and been very happy they did. I wouldn’t necessarily want the child returning to a toxic environment all week, and I’d want to know he had support on campus if that were the case.

      Also not all parents fear that their child won’t fit in. Lots of parents would be proud of their children for having the values you seem to have.

      It’s true, as you point out, some kids can’t confide in their parents at all and some parents are narcissistic and do not know how to help their kids. That is a shame. But many families can function quite well in supporting and helping each other. Awareness about the illness of depression and what to do about it can help.

    • Greg,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You raise some important issues. While it’s true that some families don’t have good communication, the goal of this post, which is written for parents, is to help them be more aware of the challenges their children face as part of the college experience.

      An important fact to note is that according to the JED Foundation, “63 percent of students say they would turn to a family member if they were in emotional distress.” I think that can give us all hope and help parents understand that their caregiving role doesn’t end once their children head off to college.

      I agree that parents and other adults too often paint an unrealistic expectation of the college experience for incoming freshmen. Teenagers would be better served if their parents were honest about their college days, especially freshman year.

      You are right that commuter students may have more support than students who reside on a campus, but they often have their own set of stressors. The JED Foundation has created guidelines to help predominantly commuter colleges provide better mental health services for their students.

      The issue of why students come home on weekends regularly is an interesting one and probably a topic I should address in a future post.

      I’m in agreement with you that depression is not another word for sadness. The experts I spoke with said there are usually signs when someone is developing a mental illness. Having some awareness of these can help, though it is certainly not fool-proof.

      This is a complex topic and one I expect to address further.

  2. This is really exceptional and should be shared far and wide. It is hard to tell how your college freshman is feeling because so much is changing in their lives all at once. Truly great advice here.

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