What is “Depression”?

Depression is a complex phenomenon that is often misunderstood. Feeling sad or “down” on occasion is a common experience, and usually represents a normal reaction to undesirable life events. These feelings can generally be expected to resolve within a short period of time without any formal treatment. Farther along the depressive spectrum is the disorder that is labeled as “clinical depression,” or “major depressive disorder.” Major depressive disorder is differentiated from ordinary sadness or distress by the duration and/or severity of symptoms, as well as the degree to which these symptoms interfere with one’s daily life.

Common symptoms of clinical depression include:

  • prolonged feelings of sadness
  • loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • changes in weight, appetite, sleep patterns, energy, or activity level
  • low self-regard or feelings of personal worthlessness
  • irritability or moodiness
  • withdrawal from social relationships
  • diminished ability to think, concentrate, or make decisions
  • loss of motivation
  • decreased libido
  • hopelessness or pessimistic expectations for the future
  • recurrent morbid or suicidal thinking

The constellation of depression symptoms may vary somewhat according to individual characteristics such as gender and ethnicity. These factors tend to influence the relative expression of physical versus psychological or emotional symptoms, as well as preferred coping styles. Because of their adverse effects on academic performance, the impairments associated with major depression can be especially problematic for college students. If you find yourself experiencing symptoms such as those listed above, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from Student Health and Counseling.

Other Mood Disorders

Major depression belongs to a larger class of mood disorders. Other examples include: Dysthymic Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder.

  • In contrast to a major depression, Dysthymic Disorder is a lower-grade, chronic depression that lasts for an extended period of time (2 or more years).
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) refers to a pattern of depression linked with seasonal changes (typically beginning in fall or winter and ending in spring).
    • SAD is more prevalent among young people and in communities located at higher latitudes.
    • Colloquially speaking, SAD is often characterized by “hibernation tendencies” such as lethargy, social withdrawal, increased need for sleep, carbohydrate craving, and weight gain.
    • Since it is believed that SAD is associated with decreases in light exposure during the fall and winter months, light therapy is one important form of treatment.
  • Bipolar Disorder (formerly known as “manic depression”) is characterized by extreme variations in mood.
    • The “lows” of Bipolar Disorder resemble major depression, but the “highs” can include feelings of euphoria, extreme excitability, irrational or disorganized thinking, intense bursts of activity, and involvement in high-risk behaviors.

What Causes Clinical Depression?

The phenomenon of clinical depression often defies identification of simple causal relationships. The fact that depression is related to changes on biological, psychological, and social levels lends to its complexity. However, research on depression has suggested the following:

  • There is a genetic component to depression. If one or more people in your immediate biological family have experienced a major depressive episode, your risk of experiencing depression is several times higher than people with no family history. Even if you have inherited a greater susceptibility to depression, however, you can take steps to reduce your likelihood of developing this disorder. (See the suggestions for preventing depression listed below.)
  • Depression is associated with electrochemical changes in brain functioning. Although there has been much focus in recent years on relationships between depression and levels of particular neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin), newer research suggests that depression may be more closely related to the relative levels of activity in different parts of the brain.
  • Depression is often accompanied by consistently distorted thought patterns. Depressed individuals commonly seem to process information about themselves and the world around them with a negative bias – screening out the good and accentuating the bad. Not surprisingly, this sort of thinking can prolong the duration of a depressive episode and increase subsequent risk of relapse.
  • Interpersonal or social stressors can also trigger depressive episodes. Among the most common of these stressors are experiences of loss. Such losses may be tangible or symbolic, or some combination of the two. For example, the break-up of a dating relationship may involve a tangible loss of regular contact with an individual, but also the loss of less-obvious rewards (e.g., a source of self-esteem and security).

For college students, some common stressors (and therefore potential risk factors for depression) include:

  • homesickness
  • the challenge of establishing a new social network
  • academic difficulties and/or adjustment to higher academic expectations
  • relationship break-ups
  • death of relatives or friends
  • financial problems
  • conflicts with parents
  • uncertainty/worry about the future (e.g., finding employment after graduation)

What You Can Do To Prevent Depression

Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits is the best way to prevent depression. Based on research that implicates factors such as physiological dysregulation, interpersonal stressors, and cognitive distortions as contributors to depression, here are some suggestions for preventing depression:

  • eat a balanced diet
  • get enough sleep
  • exercise regularly
  • get outdoors, especially during daylight hours
  • stay connected with your social network
  • avoid “self-medicating” with alcohol or other drugs
  • maintain several hobbies
  • do things for others (such as volunteering)
  • set realistic goals for yourself (avoid perfectionism)
  • monitor your thought patterns and watch out for distorted thinking
  • adopt an active, assertive stance towards dealing with your problems
  • when feeling overwhelmed, focus on developing a plan
  • talk with trusted others when something is bothering you
  • if you experience severe depressive symptoms, or if symptoms last more than a week, seek professional help

Services Available at Student Health and Counseling

Student Health and Counseling provides psychological assessment and treatment for depression from a holistic perspective. Where indicated, students can also obtain referrals to meet with our consulting psychiatrist to discuss anti-depressant medication options.

Recommended Readings

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns, M.D.
Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger, Ph.D. and Christine A. Padesky, Ph.D.


An extensive listing of online resources for depression developed by Ivan Goldberg, M.D., a psychiatrist who has been an advisor to several online support groups for depression.

Visit the National Institute Of Mental Health website, which has extensive information about mood disorders.

ULifeline.org website: Here you are able to download information, ask questions, and seek help anonymously regarding a range of mental health issues.

Online Mental Health Screening

Wondering if your or someone you’re concerned about might be dealing with depression or another mood disorder? Take one of our ANONYMOUS online mental health screenings which assess a number of issues including anxiety, depression, bipolar, eating disorder, alcohol use disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. You (and only you) will get results immediately.  There are also additional articles and information resources focused on the above content areas.

For further information:

Call Student Health and Counseling at x4080 to schedule an appointment with a counselor.