Volume 94, Issue 28

Thursday, October 19, 2000


High risk for depression Academics and lifestyle make students targets

Fighting the rise in suiicde statistics

High risk for depression Academics and lifestyle make students targets

By Tola Afolabi and Jowita Bydlowska
Gazette Staff

Depression, a term used casually and frequently, can be a very real problem for many homesick university students bogged down with school work.

Increased exposure to stressful situations, makes students more susceptible to depression, said Michael Quinn, program director of the Depression and Anxiety Resources and Education Center in Hamilton. "Stress can be good and stress can be bad, but long exposure to stress can cause depression."

Depression occurs because the stresses combine to create a destructive snowball effect on a student's physiology, Quinn explained. "The body, when it's confronted by stress and challenging events, tends to go without things."

"[Students] will not eat, exercise and get proper nutrition," he added, explaining this cycle can get out of control and become detrimental to a student's well being. "There's nobody to look after them and they have a tremendous amount of freedom."

Researchers are now interested in first episode depression, which usually occurs in university age students, Quinn said. "The first symptoms of depression usually occur [between] 18 and 25 years of age."

Identifying first episode depression is important for early treatment and recovery, he added. "The longer you go without the treatment, the more likely it is to go to chronic illness."

A common source of stress is the desire to excel, said Rod Martin, head of clinical psychology at Western. "The student population may be vulnerable to early stress originating from pressure to succeed," he said. "There is pressure from parents with high expectations and the student's own need to achieve."

Also, leaving home and loss of important and stable social network can leave students without preventive measures of dealing with school stress, said Tunde Szathmary, a Canadian Mental Health Association researcher and consultant.

"Besides social network, a student is prone to the loss of good marks in school. Even the loss of customary perception of events may become a factor in influencing the psychological state of a student," Szathmary said.

Although depression is an issue affecting those prone-to-major-changes-students, it is not easily talked about, said Laura Barons, a third-year health Sciences student. "I don't know of any friends, acquaintances that discuss the topic. But I can imagine how school stress would lead to depression,"

Student Development Centre counsellor, Jack Russell, said students usually show up at the centre because they can not deal with overwhelming difficulties in their lives. Some are referred from different services at SDC, such as career counselling service when they display helplessness and lack of direction in their lives.

"Many students who feel depressed are seen at the services. They show up because of something that happens in their lives that they can't deal with a break up, change in the family, death," Russell said.

Everyday stresses become especially harmful when they intensify and become a threat to health and well being, Martin said. "Everybody experiences sadness in their lives, but if it becomes aggravated enough to interfere with normal daily activities or causes negative physical changes, it may turn into clinical depression."

Martin said the difference between depression and the depressive state is the degree of severity. "Depression according to the diagnostic manual is a psychological and complex disorder that involves depressed mood and loss of interests and pleasure in daily activities. It can involve physical changes such as insomnia, fatigue, problems in thinking and concentrating."

Depression involves several symptoms that deal with the physical, cognitive and emotional aspect, Quinn said. "Depression isn't an illness per se. It's a consolation of symptoms," he said.

He explained depressed students tend to oversleep, have trouble making decisions and are irritable. Another common symptom is daredevil behaviour. "Risk taking in university students [can be] a mask for depression," Quinn said.

If these symptoms are not diagnosed and left untreated, eventually feelings of despair and helplessness overcome the sufferer. Quinn said 15 per cent of people suffering from depression will commit suicide.

A person may be predisposed to react negatively to stressful life events, Szthmary said. For a student the implications of early trauma may mean he or she will not be able to deal with stress because their defences have not had a chance to develop and mature.

Szthmary explained a student who has a depressive episode may not be able to fully overcome it. "They haven't had enough lessons in life to be able to recover from their state. People who haven't fully recuperated will continue on living with mental impairment that affects their social and career achievements," she said.

Jamie Wong, a third-year psychology student, said he agreed depression can happen to anybody if changes in life are too drastic. He also said the condition is dependent on a student's mind set and previous life experiences.

"There could be any reason for depression like breaking ties from high school. I am lucky, I am from London and all my friends are here," he added.

Depression occurring in the 18 to 25 age group especially, can have serious long term effects, Quinn said. In high school, a depressive episode can result in poor performance in school and failure to enter the university of choice. The negative effects continue in university. "It affects marks and has long term consequences such as not getting into biz school or med school," he said.

People suffering from depression cannot just stop feeling sad and get on with their life, as is sometimes believed, Martin said.

Russell explained counselling of a depressed person involves restructuring thinking and helping them deal with stress. The causes of distress are discussed and connection between the losses are established to allow the person to clearly see what is going on.

"Counselling gives a depressed person enough assistance and gives them better focus. [It] helps to develop problem solving that is required to cope," Russell said.

Well meaning friends should be careful to not get in over their heads, as they support a sufferer of depression, Quinn added. Students without a lot of support often fail to recognize their condition and seek proper treatment. "It's important not to feel you're the therapist."

Also, if a student does not recover or commits suicide, their friends may feel guilty. "Students will have support of friends, which is good, but this puts a lot of stress on the friend," Quinn said. "It's one thing to support, but it's another thing to take over."

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Copyright The Gazette 2000