Keep the black dog at bay
August 2, 2009 2:08 AM   Subscribe

Depression in University/College: most of you seem to have been through it, do you have any tips?

According to my research, about 90% of Mefites suffered from depression while they were in university [citation needed]. You gave me some amazing advice in my previous question about taking a year out from my course, and I'm happy to say I feel like I'm mostly out of the woods now and ready to start second year again in September.

However, as someone who's fairly prone to depression, I'm a little apprehensive about trying to keep up with my work, socialising and looking after myself (when I don't have my mum on hand to feed me!).

I've read this question on a similar topic, but I'm looking for general advice and tips on how to depression-proof my time at university, and how to do well academically without driving myself absolutely potty. What do you think, Hive Mind?
posted by teraspawn to Education (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Only indulge in drinking, drugs and sex when you're feeling happy, not in order to feel happy.
posted by vincele at 2:36 AM on August 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

Also register with your student support office at the university as soon as you can. That way, if you do start feeling bad and fall behind in your classes, your teachers will not hold it against you (nor would they know why you needed extra time, if privacy is a concern).

Please do this at the start of the semester. Waiting to divulge your problems does no one any good, and makes more work for the people who are your allies. If you are upfront about your possible needs, your teachers will be prepared in case you need extensions. In all likelihood they won't know why you need special consideration unless you tell them why. Even if they do know, they won't care to gossip about it.
posted by vincele at 2:58 AM on August 2, 2009

Just one recommendation: find and get close to people who care about you.

That's not the easiest thing in the world, by any means. But the whole radical, atomized individual thing that American culture is about--and MeFi in particular, it occasionally seems--is just bad for you. A lot of the time, I think therapists simply take the place of "people that will listen to me and be supportive," and the need for a therapist can indicate a deeper need for real, substantive friendship. Therapists have their place, make no mistake. Sometimes you really do get in over your head with personal issues. But if you're regularly in community with people with whom you can share your burdens, you won't need to pay someone just to listen to you. Getting things off your chest can be just as important as anything a therapist may say to you.

I found this to be especially important in college, as it was a pretty big transition for me. Freshman and the first half of sophomore year were definitely black hole of depression time. But I had a great group of guys that I could really talk to, and who weren't above kicking me in the ass when the difference between "depression" and "being whiny" got blurry. A group of people, many of whom are going through the same things you are, and are at the very least doing the same kinds of things that you are, will be invaluable.

I'm not sure I have concrete advice for how to find such people, as I don't know anything about you or where you are. But 1) be social, and 2) look for opportunities to transition activity-based or casual acquaintances into more substantive friendships. I think you'll find that most people are pretty desperate for real friends, and you'll be surprised how open people are to this sort of thing.
posted by valkyryn at 4:28 AM on August 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm someone who gets stressed if the assignments sneak up on me- so I have a diary and I use the thing. I even look at it, and transfer events to my wall calendar. I plot out my assignments and put in mini deadlines- ie "you really should have picked your essay topic by now." and "you need to go to the library this week" "first draft now" "polish essay" and finally "submit essay"

Knowing when I need to be doing work for stuff helps me not get stressed, and that cool calm attitude is really helpful for me to beat back the black dog.

Learn how to recognize procrastination and kill it- stay on top of the time management and the other stuff is ok. The stress comes when you get behind.

Having a social life that's not emotionally complicated and draining- have friends, not leeches. Combining some of the social life with volunteering if possible- I find that helps me.

Eat good food. Learn how to cook, make it a priority to eat good meals. Sleep well.

Keep in emotional contact with your family and friends. - emails and phone calls occasionally!

and ditto the above.
posted by titanium_geek at 4:36 AM on August 2, 2009

If your uni has a Disability office, go talk to them now. They'll be able to keep your teachers updated and provide you with official papers allowing for extensions if need be. If it weren't for those extensions I'd never be able to get all my uni work done (and I only took advantage of them at the very end).

Which brings me to: don't be afraid to get help, or use things like extensions. That's what they're there for. I know quite a number of students who could have used them but feel that there's a stigma or that they're taking a cop-out or whatever. Your sanity is worth more than what some tutor may or may not think of you. Get as much time and help as you can get.
posted by divabat at 5:13 AM on August 2, 2009

My stress in college almost universally came from the fact that I had too much to do, and not enough time to do it. Some of the best advice I've been given in this regard is this: when you're in college, it can feel like you're juggling and you've got an awful lot of balls in the air. Whenever you're starting to go crazy trying to keep them all from falling down, remember: it won't be a disaster if you let one thing fail. Often, acknowledging that something's got to give (and actually letting it give way) acts as a release valve that takes the pressure off.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:07 AM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hi, teraspawn. I'm glad you got past that episode, and I think it's great that you're thinking of ways to consolidate the positive circumstances you're now in.

I struggled with depression all through grad school. It has had a significant impact on my career. Four of my cohort from grad school are now tenured or promising tenure-track professors at the same institution where I'm a postdoc, even though on paper I looked like one of the most promising students when I started my PhD. So I never solved the problem while I was at school, but I think I've been getting a handle on it over the past year or so.

The short answer is "befriend the black dog." To do this, you need to distinguish feelings and reactions to those feelings. A black feeling isn't problematic per se, it's the depressive reactions which sometimes follow, and those reactions are always a matter of choice, although it may not feel like it at times. For instance, I have been having trouble sleeping lately, and last month I experimented with the sleeping medication rozerem, which causes depression and suicidal ideation in many people. For the three weeks I took it, it did feel as though I was walking around with a five-kilo brick strapped to my heart, but it didn't lead to depression. In some ways, this was an easier black feeling to deal with than usual, because knowing it to be caused by the drug made it easy for me to disidentify from it, but I found it to be an instructive experience for exactly that reason. The attitude of holding the black dog "at bay" is the core of the problem, because the depressive reactions first develop as an attempt to avoid experiencing the black feelings. Once it's clear that you can let the black feelings in and go on with your life anyway, the whole problem gets a lot simpler.

I learnt to experience such feelings without reactivity through meditation practice. When the feelings come up in that context, you learn to open to the experience of them, and rest. The specific Buddhist meditation I do is described here, but pretty much any practice oriented to mindfulness and opening to experience will do. I see someone else recommended The Mindful Way Through Depression to you in the earlier thread. I would second that recommendation.
posted by Estragon at 6:24 AM on August 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

Be vigilant in spotting the early signs of your depression. In college, I had my first encounter with depression and fell right into a black hole for 4 years. Oy vey. The good news is that I can now spot the initial symptoms from a mile away; I get spacey, stoic, unamused, and sedentary. As soon as I notice the pattern (usually after 2 or 3 days), I up the exercise, go on St. John's Wort, and tell my best friend what's going on. She then checks on me every few days to make sure I'm staying away from the slippery slope.

It usually takes between 2 and 5 days of this for the chemical fog to lift, but then I'm completely normal again for another six or eight months.

Your situation will no doubt be different, but it might help you to track your depression symptoms and triggers, note what helps lift you back up, and then never ever ever ignore the warning signs.
posted by jenmakes at 8:39 AM on August 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh man. I had depression when I started. Actually, it was depression that had lasted for my entire life BEFOREHAND.

But I'm happy now, with good grades and a life I enjoy.

I heavily suggest that you actively ignore various social pressures from the campus climate, especially if you're an older student, i.e. at least 20. In my impression, all they try to do is suck you in to the drinking-all-the-time dance-to-80s-music retard hipster climate which is not for sane individuals.

Prioritize studying. Study study study. NEVER spend a minute of your day loafing until after, say, 9 pm. Take periodic fifteen-minute breaks every hour or so when outside of class studying, but study.

Your living situation impacts your peace of mind. I, for example, cannot live in a dorm. It just drives me nuts. It's too compacted. I have no privacy. I have no space.

Make time once every few weeks to do something fun for a little while.
posted by kldickson at 10:25 AM on August 2, 2009

AVOID YOUNGER STUDENTS LIKE THE PLAGUE. If they're younger than 20, stay the fuck away.
posted by kldickson at 10:27 AM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Which may not be your dig - your mileage probably will vary - but the thing about the younger students - the freshmen VASTLY more than the sophomores, which aren't really too irritating but they're still getting used to the more academic side of stuff - is that they are extremely immature and I'd wager about 20% of them are depressed. If you are an older student and you are only mostly out of the woods and not entirely out of the woods, you do not want to be around people who are more incompetent at dealing with it than you are.
posted by kldickson at 10:31 AM on August 2, 2009

Some simple advice:

-Don't overwhelm yourself, particularly at first. When I returned to my university, I took 3 classes for the first term, one less than the usual number. They weren't classes I thought would be a huge challenge: one was a science class I'd also taken outside of my university during my time off, one was a new science class, one was an art class.

-Build yourself a structure of support. For me, this meant monthly meetings with student support services (who handle readmission, people who are in academic trouble, etc.), weekly meetings with my therapist, monthly meetings with my advisor, and a group of close friends who would bang on my door and drag me out of my room when necessary. This way, if you start to falter, you'll have people who will notice and who you can trust to help you before things get bad.

-Don't assume you are actually out of the woods. Events (bad grades, personal problems) or sometimes nothing at all will sometimes knock you back into into depression. It's not your fault, so don't beat yourself up for it. Be willing to reach out to that support group.

-Don't focus only on academics. Make sure you do make time for fun, for times with friends, for hobbies. Yes, it can be difficult to balance these things, but living an unbalanced life can be more dangerous to your mental health - that's one of the things I had to learn.
posted by ubersturm at 2:34 PM on August 2, 2009

join up clubs that interest you. That way you will meet new people that will keep depression at bay, atleast it was for me. For me being busy helped me through the depressing years. Hope that helps
posted by radsqd at 4:09 PM on August 2, 2009

Be wary of the pill. It took me years to figure out how devastating it was for my emotional/mental life. If you're on it, see how you feel with a few months off it (you know, talk to the doc, etc.)

Develop routines. I learned about the website through askMefi. Once you get past the cartoony look, it's full of a lot of wisdom about small steps and a positive mental environment. It's about housekeeping, but the ideas can be generalized.

Work out.

Maintain a sleep schedule. I was surprised to discover that I needed 9 hours each night.

Fight the good fight against perfectionism.

It's a job - set hours and define a work space. (I've never been able to do this, but have heard good things from those who have)

Guard your castle vigilantly - be careful with people and media you let in. The most interesting, passionate people can also be the ones least concerned about your well-being. Observe your triggers, and choose TV, movies, books, sites, pastimes to avoid those topics. At first, it might feel boring, or like you're not living life to the 'fullest'. Your pleasures will become more subtle, and your appetite for emotional hyper-stimulation will diminish.

Be prepared to mourn your interesting, depressive self. After identifying with depression for so long, the in-between before finding your post-depression identity can be very... how to say?... empty? frightening that "you" might be nothing other than your depression...? Give yourself the space during this time - how you are is exactly how you need to be right now. Try not to attach too much to how you were or how you're going to be.

Sometimes the toughest times are when everything's going great. Some thoughts that were suppressed in the name of surviving difficult patches wait for a safe mental space to bubble up to the surface. When these come, it just might be a sign that you're doing great, not that you're regressing.

Seek help from and develop a relationship with your professors. As a student I incorrectly felt I had to hide my depression or other struggles with studies. As a teacher's assistant, I discovered how really nice it is when a student comes to talk to you about classes.

Keep it simple. Look for your dead branches and prune them off your tree. (Distractions like Facebook, TV, etc., stuff that makes you feel guilty, your avoidance behaviors instead of stuff that's good for you, people, scenes, or anything that makes you feel bad about yourself)

Be forgiving when you fail. Don't use a little mistake to justify bigger ones, just gently return to your long-term goals.
posted by degrees_of_freedom at 5:05 PM on August 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Make time for things you enjoy, every day When I switched from doing mostly things I felt obligated to do (required classes, clubs, etc.) to focusing on things I liked (elective classes, fun with friends, seeing the city, cooking), I became much happier. Of course you will have obligations but think about which ones you can maybe let go of or say no to, and also think about how you can balance obligations and enjoyments.

I also started setting aside one day per week in which I did not study. At all. I just had fun. And it helped me refresh so I could be more motivated at other times in the week.

I found myself to be a more successful student when I had a strong study group to work with. For me, the work always got done even when I was at my lowest, but I certainly enjoyed it more with others.

ALWAYS go to class.

Reach out to your professors. Go to office hours and chat with them about the subject material. It will allow you to feel more comfortable asking for help when you are stuck.

Lastly, avoid procrastination! When I was feeling down it was too easy to let my work drag on and on. Find a place where you can be focused and just plow through. If you have feeling of self-doubt because your work is difficult and maybe it's hard to do it well, just do it anyway.
posted by mai at 9:05 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

YMMV, but for me it was helpful to switch up my studying schedule. It was easy to get stuck in the library or my own living room and feel like all I ever did was class, study in silence, sleep, eat. Something as simple as taking my textbook to a coffee shop and reading a couple of chapters on a couch that wasn't in my own house did amazing things for my happiness.
posted by rebekah at 3:17 PM on August 3, 2009

Limit/reduce your drinking.
Maintain regular visits to your University/College student health services for counseling or medication.
Read The Feeling Good Handbook.
posted by jmmpangaea at 7:36 AM on August 4, 2009

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