Depression affects about half of college students


Published: Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 9:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 9:15 a.m.

Imagine if every other person who strutted across Turlington Plaza experienced some sort of trauma, separation anxiety or depression.

Well, the numbers don't lie.

An estimated 53 percent of college students, which would amount to 26,500 students at the University of Florida, will experience some form of depression, according to a UF psychologist.

"The important message is that it's not uncommon to experience some sort of depression in your college career," said Jamie Funderburk, a psychologist with UF's Student Mental Health Services.

Eating disorders, separation anxiety, relationship issues and being a minority on a majority campus all are problems plaguing college students and can be symptoms of depression.

"We see students feeling all kinds of situations loss, substance abuse, career indecision and cultural identity," she said. "They're not all mutually exclusive and can contribute to depression."

Students experience these issues because they're adjusting to a new environment and leaving behind a familiar support system, Funderburk said.

Academic challenges that are common during the transition from high school to a university and a newly found independence are also factors that leave students vulnerable to stress.

Some symptoms of anxiety include chronic fatigue, irritability and panic attacks, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Although many of these issues are seen in freshmen, they can be prevalent in the three or more years that follow.

Katie Sarabia, a UF graduate and former resident assistant, said RAs are trained to deal with various situations like homesickness and look for warning signs to direct students to the proper resources.

"We are to offer our ear to listen," Sarabia, 21, said. "I know from personal experience some people don't always want to just open up about their problems to their RA."

Sarabia said she experienced homesickness and stress her freshmen year, which later inspired her to become a resident assistant.

UF is not unique.

Funderburk said depression ranges across university campuses nationwide, and while the percentage of students experiencing depression dropped from 81 percent in 1987 to 53 percent five years ago, the suicide rate has not wavered.

"The number of students who said 'yes' to having attempted suicide was one percent," she said. "A general feeling of hopelessness and loneliness kind of distinguishes them from a student who is just feeling depressed but not to the point of suicide."

Suicide was the third leading cause of death among the 15 to 24 age group, and the second-leading killer in the college population, according to the National Association for Mental Health.

This is why it is important for students to have a support system to learn how to cope. Funderburk said.

Sabrina Ahmed, 18, will be attending UF with about 6,700 other incoming freshmen this fall semester. She said she intentionally tried not to think about college so that she wouldn't set herself up for failure.

"I felt that would cause excitement that would be shattered by disappointment or nervousness that just might turn into anxiety," Ahmed said.

Even though a lot of her friends already call UF home, which should keep her from feeling depressed, she said she still thinks the independence could pose a problem.

"If I feel pressure, it's because I've never been given freedom, so I honestly have not the slightest idea what I'll actually end up doing," she said. "I'm scared I won't live up to my parents' or my grade expectations, or just won't get the best experience

because of my own careless mistakes."

The UF Counseling Center helps students develop relaxation techniques and positive coping skills without any added pressure, Funderburk said.

"Sometimes a person just needs the time to grieve so they have what they're experiencing validated," she said. "I think it's important for students to realize that it's a real strength to seek a positive coping strategy and that experiences can give you a new way to look at the world and at yourself."

For more information on depression and other related issues, call (352) 392-1575, or visit the UF Counseling Center Web site at http://www.counsel.ufl.edu.

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