How Can I Go to College While Dealing with Depression?

How to Deal with Depression in College

College students and depression go together like peanut butter and jelly, mosquitos and nets, peas and pods… you get the idea. So if you’re struggling with depression and worried about going off to college in the fall, the first thing you should know is you are NOT alone. Now more than ever, anxiety and depression plague American adults. In fact, in the past year alone CDC reports show that we’ve jumped from 36.4% of adults experiencing symptoms to a staggering 41.5%, with the most significant increase occurring in young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. That means anxiety and depression in college students is so prevalent that many colleges and universities have resources prepared to support their student body with health and counseling centers, which is something you could prioritize in your school search and selection process.

Still, even with support, embarking on a journey as “big” as college while battling depression (or any mental illness) can feel daunting, even impossible. Many students with depression have successfully graduated from traditional 4-year degree programs, while others have opted for 2-year programs, or stretched their studies to 6-8 years in order to work with a lighter class load. Beyond that, there are a number of training programs, certifications, and profitable careers that require no formal education. You have so many options for building a future! And if, as many do, you feel that going away to college is the path you want to pursue, there are plenty of ways for you to do so successfully, whilst managing your depression and taking care of yourself.

Manage Your Expectations

The college experience can be a lot more flexible than you might think. Sure, most people go for 4 years or 8 semesters, but tons of people create their own pace and timeline. Don’t hold yourself to a standard that may not make sense for you, or place judgmental pressure on yourself to conform to the “normal way” you’ve been taught people get through college. Your education is for YOU! And if YOU need to go through your degree program faster than, slower than, or with more breaks than the “typical” student, find yourself a school and an academic advisor willing to help you set up a curriculum and class schedule unique to your goals and needs. If you give yourself permission to make the college experience work for you, you’re far less likely to be disappointed down the line if you need to drop a class or take off a semester for your mental health. It happens! And your education will be no less valuable for your commitment to yourself.

Make the Experience Work For You

Why are you interested in going to college? To learn? To graduate with a specific degree? To experience a new place and make new friends? Whatever the answer to that “why” is, make sure that your choice of school, major, and schedule (etc.) line up with how you want your college experience to feel. If you’re not sure what the answer to that “why” is, don’t load up on intense classes and responsibilities in that first semester. Give yourself the time and space to explore what sparks your interest and feels most healthy to you.

If you do know what you want to pursue, make sure you’re keeping your depression in mind when you sign up for classes and activities. Does your depression impede your ability to sleep and wake up in the morning? Do your best to schedule classes later in the day. Does your depression get triggered when you don’t have time to properly eat and exercise? Make sure you sign up for a course schedule that leaves you plenty of time for breaks. Do you typically get overwhelmed when you’re too busy? Some colleges even make it possible for you to sign up for classes in such a way that you could have one or two whole days off per week. Or, on a larger scale, if you’re intimidated by the 8-semester plan that most schools will present to you, talk to your advisor about condensing or stretching that amount of time in a way that feels more manageable for your mental health.

Set Yourself Up for Success

Commit to a few habits that can help you manage your symptoms so that you are equipped to roll with the punches when depression inevitably rears its ugly head. And remember… there’s no shame in having a mental illness. On the contrary, you should take great pride in having the desire to balance your education with your health.

1. First things first! Ask for help. Before you do anything else, contact your campus or your program to find out what kinds of mental health resources they offer students. If a school doesn’t offer ANY mental health resources… you may not want to go there because they seem more than a little behind on their mental health priorities. But since you’ll be choosing a SUPER supportive institution for your education, ask lots of questions. Does the school provide mental health counseling? Is it free? Are there peer mentors? Support groups? Tutoring centers? Special housing? Some schools even allow the occasional emotional support animal, if that’s something your doctor recommends, so ask as many questions as you can think of about the accommodations your school and your professors offer to students with depression.

2. Get a planner. When it comes to your studies, be mindful of your stressors and triggers. Make sure you’re leaving yourself the time to take care of your body, take breaks, and enjoy yourself. Of course, write down your classes and major deadlines, but more importantly, write down when you’re going to have naps, meals, go to the student gym, take a walk around campus, and go to bed, etc.

3. Be as consistent as you can with attendance. Depression will make it very tempting to skip classes on a regular basis, and sometimes you absolutely may need to take a day off. But, consistent attendance is often a crucial way to reduce your stress outside of class… attendance and participation may even count for a large percentage of your course grade, which might help you offset the one or two assignments you might miss because of a flare-up. Attendance also provides you with the opportunity to develop a relationship with your professors and other students, which may come in handy if you need to ask for an extension on an assignment or want a study buddy from your class.

4. Don’t isolate. Depression often manifests as feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, or mental paralysis, meaning you have little motivation to socialize. Studies show, however, that isolation only worsens your mental health. If you’re able to go to a school where you already have some friends, great! Ask them to hang out regularly. There will also be many opportunities to make new friends, get involved in campus activities, join clubs, and volunteer for local communities.

Cast Off Burdens

There are SO many verses in the Bible that invite you to “cast off your burdens” and let the Lord sustain you. Maybe the burden you need to cast off is the idea that there’s a right or wrong way to do college. If you need to live at home while you get your degree, do it. If you need to take it one class at a time, do it. If you need to ask your teachers for extensions every semester, do it. If you need to schedule all of your classes afternoon, do it. If you need to drop a class and take it again later, do it. Allow yourself to tackle college in any way you can, and release the socially constructed ideal of the “traditional” college experience. This is YOUR education, and as long as you end up learning what you set out to learn, that’s a success.

Again, depression in college students is COMMON. There’s no need to feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for what you need. If it’ll help you get the most out of your education, it’s worth pursuing. So work with your doctor, your counselor, your family, and your friends to create a college experience unique to you that leaves room for the days when depression makes it tough to function. If you’re unsure how to move forward, you can always reach out to a Hope Coach, who can help you figure out what to do next, who to ask for help, and how to cope with college depression.

Check out our "Depression Self-Care Checklist" which includes signs, symptoms and tips to help you understand and deal with depression. 

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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