It’s been in the headlines of USA Today, Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times—depression among college students is on the rise. While there is plenty of debate about the reasons for that increase, and whether more students are actually depressed or just more are willing to admit it and seek help, the fact remains that depression often first shows up in the late teens and early adulthood, the age of many college students, according to Paul Natvig, a psychiatrist with the University’s Student Health Service.
“Approximately 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women will experience depression at some time in their lives,” he says. “We have nearly 30,000 students on this campus, so that percentage is a large number of those students.”
Natvig notes that two of the most common times that students seek help are during the transition phases of their University of Iowa experience.
“We tend to see students when they’re starting school and when they’re stopping school, as they adjust to life at the University and as they get closer to graduation and realize they have to move to the next phase of life.”
At Iowa, students experiencing depression have a number of places to go for help.
Ninety-one percent of all new first-year students live in residence halls. Because adjusting to college can be stressful, resident assistants (RAs) and hall coordinators receive special training from University Counseling Service. They learn the signs and symptoms of depression and how they can help.
“We teach the RAs to build community—right away they plan activities for their floor members—going together to Weeks of Welcome or athletic events or having a pizza party, for example,” says Kate Fitzgerald, the assistant director of Residence Life. “This helps the students and RAs to get to know one another. And when they’ve had a bad day, students who know their RAs are more comfortable going to talk with them.”
RAs are trained to be alert for significant changes in students’ behavior.
“They are taught what to watch for, say if someone quits going to class or stays in their room all the time,” Fitzgerald says. “Part of their job is engaging students in conversation and activity, helping students through those lonely situations where depression sometimes occurs.”
If a student still seems to be depressed, RAs can refer them to several places. Students also can make the choice to seek help on their own.
University Counseling Service has 12 licensed psychologists and sees approximately 2,000 students each year, according to Kathleen Staley, assistant director for program and consultation services for University Counseling Service. Those students come in for many reasons, but depression is certainly one of them.
“Students may say their grades are falling, or they don’t feel like going out, or they’re frequently in tears,” Staley says. “We do an assessment, a clinical interview, to figure out the severity and possible causes of these feelings. For some students, medication may be indicated, and we work closely with the two psychiatrists at Student Health Service on this. Others may respond to therapy alone, learning new ways to make changes in their behavior patterns.”
University Counseling Service practices a brief-therapy model, and the average number of therapy sessions used by UI students is six, according to Staley. Currently registered students are eligible for approximately 10 to 15 sessions of free counseling. Students who would like to continue counseling beyond this may join group sessions offered by University Counseling Service, or may be referred to a counselor in the community. Students who might benefit from antidepressant medication can be referred to Student Health Service, which employs two staff psychiatrists and works closely with University Counseling Service.
“Sometimes we get students who are interested in a particular medication—they have a friend who takes it or they’ve seen an ad for it,” Natvig says. “After an evaluation, I may find that it’s appropriate or I may suggest another medication, or find that medication isn’t in their best interests. I almost always recommend counseling. If they’re taking medication, I generally see them back at regular intervals to make sure that it’s effective. If there are side effects, they may need to come in more often.”
In addition to working one-on-one and in group therapy settings, University Counseling Service offers regular talks on mental health issues. These services can be requested by University groups—sororities and fraternities and residence hall floors—and the topics covered include stress management, eating disorders, and test-taking skills. Student Health Service also offers information on depression at www.uiowa.edu/~shs/. Scroll down to the link Free Online Alcohol, Eating Disorder, and Depression Screening.
In general, because of confidentiality guidelines, parents don’t have access to their student’s medical records. Parents can only gain access to medical information of students 18 and older if their student has signed a written release of information. However, both Staley and Fitzgerald encourage parents who are troubled about their student’s mental state to let staff members know.
“If parents are worried, we welcome them to call the hall coordinator’s office and share their concerns,” Fitzgerald says. “That way we can stop by a student’s room to ask, ‘Hey, we got a call that there are some concerns about you. Is there anything we can do to help?’ ”
Staley agrees that parental observations can be beneficial.
“While we can’t talk about specific information with parents, even including whether or not their child is being seen at University Counseling Service, we’re very happy to take information from parents,” Staley says.
Can parents do anything else to help?
“Certainly, parents know their child well, and it’s important that they ask questions and pay attention to the answers,” Staley says. “Be patient, willing to listen, show interest. You can ask, ‘You seem a little sad lately. What’s wrong?’ ”
Students also relish other forms of contact, including letters, packages of food, or a poster for a residence hall room. Parents who show an interest in their child’s roommate or friends or invite friends of their student home for the weekend demonstrate support and help keep the lines of communication open.
“Making time to come for a visit or to attend a student’s activity and taking everyone out to lunch—I hear all the time from students who really admire it when a friend’s parents do those kind of things,” Staley says.
Depression encompasses a wide range of symptoms, from “I don’t feel like myself. I’m having trouble concentrating,” to talk of suicide. Staley says parents should always take suicide talk seriously. It can come as a direct form of communication—“I feel like killing myself”—or indirect “If I got run over by a bus right now, it’d be fine with me” or a student might give treasured things away.
“It needs immediate attention,” Staley says. “Help your student get to a physician or mental health professional. During the daytime, call University Counseling Service. If it’s nighttime, ask your student, ‘Can you keep yourself safe tonight?’ You also can contact their RA, if they’re living in the residence halls.”
University Counseling Service sees students for many reasons, in addition to depression. Information is on-line at www.uiowa.edu/~ucs. For parents interested in more information on helping students with depression, visit www.uiowa.edu/~ucs/helping_parent.
“We want parents and students to know that the University has many services available,” Natvig says. “We’re here to help them.”
By Linzee Kull McCray