Students find various ways of dealing with depression

Kate Bigam

When Laura Muller’s parents divorced, she became so overwhelmed by its impact on her life that she stopped eating, and her sleeping patterns changed entirely – she found she either slept too much or not at all.

“I blocked out my friends and family,” said Muller, a former Kent State student. “I talked to them, but it just wasn’t the same. I wasn’t enjoying anything anymore, and that just wasn’t me.”

Muller, a hospitality management student, started taking her mom’s prescription Wellbutrin pills in an effort to make herself happy again. Eventually, she saw a doctor about her depression, and he wrote her a prescription of her own.

Muller, who said the medication has helped restore her energy and improved her mood, is just one of thousands of college students using antidepressants to deal with the pressures of college life.

A 2005 study published by the Massachusetts Medical Society estimated that anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of college students treated at university health centers use antidepressant drugs.

The study did not account for students whose prescriptions might have come from doctors outside the university.

Michael Moore, assistant director of the Psychological Clinic at Kent State, said the increase in the number of students who seek help for depression may be due to a decrease in the social stigma related to the disease.

Television and magazine advertisements for antidepressants and psychological therapy expose people to the idea of seeking help, Moore said, making them more comfortable with asking for help themselves.

“There’s less mystery associated with who (psychologists) are, what we do, what services we provide,” Moore said.

And although psychologists are not permitted to write prescriptions in Ohio, Moore said those at the Psychological Clinic often refer patients to doctors at DeWeese Health Center who can.

Patrick, a freshman exploratory major who asked that his last name not be used, has been on antidepressants for a year and a half to treat depression and bipolar disorder. Patrick, who said he has always been a somewhat pessimistic person, found his mood swings could be provoked by the simplest things, such as the end of a vacation or watching a movie he disliked.

“I was always on alcohol or painkillers, always taking something,” Patrick said. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted for this to be over, or I wanted to kill myself.”

Afraid of his suicidal thoughts, Patrick saw a doctor who prescribed him the highest dosage of Prozac; since that time, he has switched antidepressant medication twice and also takes sedatives to calm his bipolar-induced anxiety. He said he isn’t sure whether the medications help him, but when combined with therapy, they seem to control his depression.

“I’m not sure if they’re working a little bit, or if it’s just kind of a mind game or that kind of thing,” Patrick said uncertainly. “But the sedatives work. They calm me down and keep me less anxious.”

Most importantly, Patrick said, he no longer fantasizes about killing himself.

And although some people are genetically predisposed to depression, according to the National Institute for Mental Health’s Web site, college provides additional stressors that can lead a person into mental illness. Greater academic demands, newfound independence, financial responsibility and preparing for the “real world” after graduation can all burden college students to the point of depression.

Research has shown depression often presents itself in the late teen years, Moore said, and the college atmosphere can add to that burden by creating stress in all the “life areas” – students’ academic, financial and social lives.

“College happens to occur at a time of life that is prime for the emergence of depression,” he said. “Kids are having to completely reestablish a social support for themselves.”

Muller, who works two jobs to pay for school out of her own pocket, said the pressure of college finally got to her; she eventually transferred out of Kent State because, among other things, she could not afford the tuition.

“Just the thought of growing up is scary,” she said. “College just pushed you to grow up so soon.

“It’s very draining, and with family and friend issues, it’s a lot to take in at once.”

Patrick said when he began attending Kent State, his depression deepened. He missed nearly three weeks of classes, he said, because he felt paralyzed by his depression and was unable to get out of bed.

“There’s more stress – you’re away from your family, away from your comfort zone,” Patrick said. “People think they’re going to find their place, their niche in life, and there’s a lot of pressure to find out what you want to do and meet who you want to be with.”

Worried his depression was worsening, Patrick switched to Wellbutrin, a change he said has been for the better. He worries that going home for the holidays might throw off his emotional balance, but said as with everything else in his life, he will work through it with medicine and therapy.

According to Moore’s advice, Patrick has the right idea about treating his depression.

“While antidepressant medications have shown to be effective in treating depression, as effective as therapy, what they don’t do is prevent relapse,” he said. “It doesn’t teach you any skills to prevent depression.”

Antidepressants effectively treat acute symptoms of mental illness, he said, but should usually be combined with therapy so that if a student stops taking antidepressants, he or she has learned the skills necessary to ward off relapses of depression in the future.

Muller is now attending Lakeland Community College and continues to take her antidepressant medication. There are some days, she said, when even her medicine can’t help her depression. And although she is not comfortable seeing a therapist, she said her friends and family have helped her find reasons to be happy.

“I just don’t think medication alone can help you,” Muller said. “You have to want to help yourself. Find out why you are depressed and fix it.”

Contact enterprise reporter Kate Bigam at [email protected].