By Beth Leipholtz
Meet Sara Nistler, a seemingly bubbly, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, first-year student at CSB with a passion for choir. But life hasn’t always been light-hearted for Sara. At age two, she began pulling out her own hair, a disorder referred to as trichotillomania. At age four, she was molested by a male relative. In high school, she was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with a boyfriend. She was later hospitalized during her junior year of high school as both an in-patient and out-patient for cutting herself.
Nistler wasn’t officially diagnosed with depression and anxiety until her freshman year of high school, yet she had been battling both for the majority of her life.
Among college students, stories like Nistler’s are often suppressed, yet are surprisingly common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a survey conducted in 2009 found that 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some time in the past year.
“One of things I tell people that is not usually thought of, is that during October on college campuses, there is a peak in suicide or suicide attempts, especially among young students,” psychology professor Jan Holtz said. “The newness of it all has worn off and they find out that college is not going to be as easy as they thought, even if they were a really good student in high school. Full blown depression is very serious, but symptoms can exist in a lot of us in new environments.”
Common signs of depression include loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, lack of energy, problems concentrating or making decisions, problems falling asleep or sleeping too much, loss of appetite or over-eating, thoughts or attempts of suicide and aches, pains, headaches and cramps that will not go away.
“During SnowFest in high school I was voted queen,” an anonymous CSB student said. “I remember being up there, and I knew I should be happy, I knew should feel excited, but I didn’t. I just really didn’t care. I was passive and numb. Each day I just went to school, went to dance, went home. I was in a constant pattern and I just didn’t care about anything. Even at graduation I couldn’t cry but I couldn’t be happy either. It was a lot of going through the motions.”
Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand and may be caused by a chemical imbalance or genealogy. They can also be brought on or exacerbated by factors such as living away from family for the first time, missing family or friends, feeling alone or isolated, having conflict in relationships, dealing with new or difficult school work and worrying about finances. Many of these factors are very prominent in college life and the adjustment period that follows.
“It can be harder being away from home, especially when I am going through a low time,” an anonymous CSB student said. “I cope with this by calling my parents a lot, they have been what keeps me going. My dad is great, when I am really anxious I sometimes call him up to ten times a day. He helps me keep calm and feel safe.”
Depression and anxiety can also reside as an aftereffect of both physical and emotional abuse.
“In November of my senior year, I had a boyfriend was two years younger than me,” an anonymous CSB student said. “He was always worried that I was pregnant and he would start to punch me in the stomach. Eventually I asked what he was doing. He said, ‘well if there’s a baby in there I’m gonna kill it.’ It would get to point he wouldn’t talk to me until I got my period. We broke up January of senior year and that was kind of a trigger for my depression.”
Students often find themselves at a loss as to how to confront the feelings and thoughts they are experiencing, especially if they feel as if they are alone in their suffering. However, they are not. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that depression affects 19 million Americans over the age of 18 each year and that more American adults suffer from depression than coronary heart disease, cancer and AIDS combined.
“I think the biggest thing for me was swallowing my pride and saying, ‘I need help,’” sophomore Jenna Weber said. “People don’t realize how common depression is until they say it out loud and other people are like, ‘Oh, me too.’”
Denial may also be a factor in determining when to seek help.
“I think acceptance is one of the hardest things to deal with,” sophomore Emily Buchmiller said. “Once I accepted that my suicidal and depressed thoughts weren’t necessarily coming from me, but they were coming from the depression, it really helped me with overcoming it. Students need to really take advantage of the free counseling on the campuses. I can honestly say the counseling has saved my life. If it wasn’t available and free, I can guarantee that I would not have sought out help.”
Acceptance may also be difficult for friends and family of the victim, simply because they don’t fully understand the illness or are unaware of the symptoms.
“My parents had been going through denial since I was a kid,” Nistler said. “They talked to a doctor when I started pulling out my hair. They thought I would grow out of it, but I didn’t. I kept retreating further and further away and I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t think they would understand. Even now they’re still trying to get over what happened in high school because they didn’t know all of it as it happened.”
“People don’t always understand how much mental illness affects you,” an anonymous CSB student said. “Just imagine spending nearly every day of your life not liking yourself, and being irrationally afraid of things. That is what life with depression and anxiety is like for me. There are some days when I simply can’t get out of bed; no matter how hard I try I just feel too hopeless or too scared. It makes it hard to make friends when you don’t believe that you are worthy of being loved.”
Although struggling with depression and anxiety is most difficult for the person suffering, it can also be difficult for loved ones to understand and cope with it. Sophomore Brandon Brist grew up with an older brother suffering from both depression and bipolar disorder.
“The biggest part I had to understand was when my brother was truly himself or when bipolar or depression had altered him,” Brist said. “He has been a great brother but there are times when his bipolar and depression can throw him into the deepest darkest emotions I have seen among people, and at times he can be very high strung. There have been times when screaming matches have erupted between us both due to my frustration and these conditions. One of the hardest parts is never knowing what tomorrow will be like.”
Alongside negative emotions and thoughts, depression and anxiety may urge a person to inflict pain upon themselves, contemplate committing suicide or even attempt committing suicide.
“College magnified my depression to levels I’d never experienced before,” sophomore Jamie Swanson said. “I had trouble making friends at first and a lot of relationship issues that sort of lead me down a path of destruction. I lost interest in everything. I distanced myself from everyone who cared about me. I’d had suicidal thoughts in the past (infrequently since junior high), but within the last year I’ve had my first, and hopefully last, two suicide attempts. It’s difficult to even think that I am someone capable of making a decision like that, and I can’t say that’s how I always feel, but I’ve definitely had points where I’d felt out of options.”
While usually these desires to self-harm are intentionally acted upon, there may be instances when they are not.
“I haven’t made any ‘serious’ attempts,” Buchmiller said. “But I have accidently been hurt and enjoyed it. For example, if I burned my arm on my hair straightener I was relieved. My counselor has said I am ‘passive suicidal,’ so basically I have some desire for bad things to happen to me, but I don’t actively seek harm.”
There are a variety of treatment options for depression and anxiety, including antidepressants or psychotherapy. Two forms of psychotherapy are normally utilized: cognitive behavioral therapy, which attempts to aid people in changing negative thinking and behaviors, and interpersonal therapy, which attempts to help people understand and work though their personal relationships which may be causing or worsening their symptoms. In some cases, there may also be certain activities which give the victim a sense of control over a situation, something which people suffering from depression often feel they lack.
“If you’re having a bad day, clean your room,” an anonymous SJU student said. “I am a complete slob and I despise cleaning, but the act of accomplishing a task that ends with visible results is amazing. My doctor told me this as I moved up to school and I just laughed at it. Then fall semester before finals I felt like I was drowning under all the homework and studying. I finally just tried it and I think just being able to see that your efforts do accomplish something really helps.”
Another coping mechanism is forming a relationship with someone who has also experienced depression or can at least relate. Discovering a passion as a form of outlet or release is also common.
“It helps to find other people who know what you’re going through,” Nistler said. “Don’t try to push it on people who don’t get it, and try to be open with your family. It also helps to find something you love. I love going to choir even if I don’t want to leave my room. There are people there who make me smile. If I can at least do that or make someone happy, it’s a little ‘go me’ day.”
The bottom line comes down to making the decision to actively seek out help.
“A final word of advice? No one can help you unless you decide to help yourself,” Swanson said. “Counselors won’t seek you out and sometimes family and friends can’t see when you’re struggling. There are so many resources available to you, you just have to seek them out. No one deserves to have depression, but if you do, you can do something about it.”