It's often said that your time spent at university will be the best of your life. Cheap booze, free love, getting up at two and staying out till four. Life doesn't get any better than that right?
Unfortunately, while some of the above may be true for some students some of the time, the truth is that being a student is often far from the stereotypical easy life, and can at times be one of the most stressful periods in a person's life. A survey carried out by The Mental Health Foundation in 2001 revealed that 50% of students in the UK showed signs of clinical anxiety, while more than 10% have suffered from clinical depression.
Unsurprisingly, the image of the perpetually partying student without a care in the world is clearly a little wide of the mark, but what are the causes for our distress and what can be done to make the journey through higher education a little smoother?
It goes without saying that there is no single cause, and certainly no easy answers.
Many will surely agree that money is a primary concern for worry, with the student loan in many cases doing little more than covering the rent and bills. Another survey, by The Higher Education Academy, found that 60% of students were worried about their finances, while 58% were having to work part-time to support themselves.
For many students, going to university is their first taste of freedom from their parents, and this change can often be stressful as the need to make life-changing decisions and take care of oneself independently asserts itself. Homesickness, changing relationships with old friends and trying to fit in with new people can all add to this stress, even beyond the initial few months of university life.
Add to this the ever-present pressures of academic work and heavy nights of drinking, and it's easy to see why the constant effort of juggling all these different aspects can take its toll, triggering depression.
Of course, everyone the world over at some point suffers from life-induced stress and there are often times when everything can pile up and leave us washed out and fed up with it all. But sometimes these feelings can become persistent and run far deeper than simply feeling low, and the serious dangers of depression should not be overlooked, even, and especially as the festive season draws near.
While some people may be more predisposed to develop depression for genetic reasons or traumatic life experiences, it is a mental illness that is very common and can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, personality or social background.
There are a number of types of depression, the most common being mild/moderate depression. Mild depression is usually triggered by a stressful life event or change of circumstances, such as exam stress, a relationship break-up or financial difficulties, though the causes are not always this obvious. Symptoms may include persistent feelings of sadness, loss of motivation, low self-esteem and fatigue. Though it is possible to continue with everyday life as normal, it is often difficult or impossible to derive any pleasure from it.
Sometimes, if these feelings persist, this can lead to major, or clinical depression. As the name suggests, this type is much more severe, and can have a far greater detrimental effect on studying, relationships and the ability to continue with everyday life. Clinical depression can persist for long periods, and is difficult to recover from without professional help and/or medication.
Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic depression, is less common than other forms of depression, but can also be the most devastating. Often triggered by stressful or traumatic events, sufferers experience extreme mood swings- highs (Mania) and lows (depression), often too such a degree that undertaking everyday activities can become difficult, or even impossible. Symptoms in the manic phase may include incoherent and disjointed thinking, severely impaired judgement, constant euphoria and delusional beliefs; followed by a period of depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a recently discovered form of depression, estimated to affect over half a million people each year during the winter months. SAD is caused by a lack of sunlight, which triggers a chemical imbalance within the brain. For some it can be extremely debilitating without treatment, while for others it is much more mild, resulting in the winter blues.
Dealing With Depression
With all depression, whatever the underlying reasons, it's important to take steps towards dealing with it, and, where necessary, seek help. The first step is often acknowledging that you are suffering from an illness, one that is common and in no way a sign of weakness.
For mild forms of depression, simple changes in lifestyle and routine can work wonders in lifting you out of it.
In recent years, the medical community has recognised the benefits of exercise in increasing psychological well-being, as well as physical health. Whether this means going down the gym, jogging/ cycling around town or any other physical activity, those extra endorphins can go a long way in adding more of a spring to your step, both long-term and short-term.
A balanced diet with plenty of meat, veg' and fruit also plays an important role in maintaining a healthy state of mind. No need to become a health fanatic, but avoid the junk food as far as possible as not only does it lack vital nutrients, certain additives have been shown to contribute to a depressed state of mind. On a plus point, scientists and chocaholics have discovered that eating chocolate can actually ease depression, at least in moderation.
As depression is in part the result of a bio-chemical imbalance, the effect of drink and other substances upon your mind should not be underestimated either. It goes without saying that after a few heavy nights you begin to feel a little worse for wear, and so sometimes it's often good to take a breather or practice a little moderation. In some cases, if you feel that you may be developing a substance addiction that is destructive to your well-being, it may be useful to seek help in getting it under control.
If money is a source of concern, it may be beneficial to draw up a budget so you know exactly how much money you have to spend and where it's going. In certain cases the university finance office may be able to offer financial help in the form of a loan or grant.
Lifestyle changes such as these and a more organised approach to daily living can help a great deal in some cases, but for others it is not so easy to escape depression. For those suffering from severe or manic depression, it is often advisable to consult a counsellor who can offer a professional and impartial ear, or a doctor who can prescribe anti-depressants.
Talking to friends and family members openly about it, though this can be hard, can also help to put things into perspective, and you will often find people far more understanding and supportive than you expect.
Depression can be a major obstacle, and afflicts many people over the course of a lifetime, but there are many ways of dealing with it and numerous avenues of support available.