I like to keep things light, but that’s hard to do during these dreary, light-deprived days of January. Thoughts of this lead me to a serious topic facing many of our students at universities.
I read a recent article about a college student with a loving family and friends, a bright future, and no apparent reason to be sad.
She jumped off the roof of a parking garage with no warning and died instantly.
Why would someone do this, you might ask? Depression is a sinister, dark, and difficult disease. And it does not need to have a reason to manifest. It is not the victim’s fault, even though most of the afflicted would tell you that they feel like they are to blame. Some of the worst sufferers do a great job of masking the symptoms, seeming okay to those around them. Many times, their loved ones respond in astonishment when they learn of the ailment, hopefully before it is too late. Even when the dark beast is discovered, it is difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to pull it out of their child, sibling, or friend, no matter what they do. Luckily, treatment options are increasing, and that is a very hopeful thing.
The specter of depression is particularly problematic in a college setting. At home, students are around people that know them well and who may recognize changes in behavior or at least be open to the warning signs. In college, students find themselves surrounded by strangers, in a new environment, often away from home for the first time. You may feel dead inside, but who’s going to notice? And honestly, when you can’t muster enough energy to care about yourself, it is nearly impossible to believe that any of those new people care about you.
I can assure the students and their parents that colleges do care; we are vigilent but have so much more to do.
Back to this difficult topic.
For many new students, it is nearly impossible to tease apart clinical depression and the lost familiarity of home, the stress of a new environment, and the homesickness that so many experience.
I know because I experienced this when I was a new college student so very long ago. And this was before most universities had support networks, clinical psychologists, trained residents, and effective anti-depressants. While everyone around me seemed to be having a blast drinking beer, staying up all night, listening to new wave, and cramming for tests, all I wanted to do was shrink away and hide in my bed at home, which was over two hours away. Calls to my parents resulted in some sympathy, but mostly I was told to stick it out and things would get better.
Dropping out or transferring was not an option.
Lucky for me, things did get better, although I recall my college years as being less than happy. I struggled constantly with the deadness inside, while I felt compelled to shine externally. For all purposes, I think I was liked and appreciated. But, in the end, I feel more sadness and regret than fondness and appreciation for those four years.
I was a mess.
My advice to those who suffered my plight? Get help, even if that empty thing that is eating your soul tells you that there is no point. Talking to a professional, your family, and trusted friends will not make you a pariah. Society has moved forward and understands. If your new surroundings and the stress of college are making you feel worse, then, by all means, get out, take some time off, and find something that renews your soul. I know this is not easy, particularly because that transitional age from adolescence to adulthood is confusing, scary, and often very lonely. It is a time of loss for most everyone and requires time to heal.
My suggestion to parents sending their kids to college is to pay attention and listen. Giving advice to your kids is great, but you just might not be able to get in through all the black cotton and emptiness lurking in them. If you sense anything wrong, then trust your gut. Call the college. Have the school pay attention. And make sure that the bedroom is always ready for a homecoming. If your kids aren’t ready for school, then don’t push them.
Bring them home, find them help immediately, try to understand (or at least respect) the impenetrable blackness, and eventually the sun will shine again. Hope and open communication are the best medicines, next to a good prescription from a qualified doctor.