It is only natural to feel down sometimes — especially during finals week. But for some students, long-term depression can take a heavy toll on their performance in school, at work, and in their relationships. In the modern vernacular, the word “depression” is often used as a synonym for sadness. In reality, however, the term has a precise scientific meaning for psychologists, said MCC psychology professor Jodi Richardson-Delgado.
“When we talk about depression, we’re talking about a mood dysregulation where an individual feels depressed most days of the week, for several weeks,” she said. “We’re not just talking about a moment in time, we’re talking about a pattern of behaviors.” Wynn Call, another professor of psychology at MCC with a background as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, agreed, adding that depression is a disorder that has physical causes as well as psychological ones. “Depression is not just feeling a little bit down and having a bad day. Depression itself has both physiological and psychological tentacles to it, so to speak,” Call said.
The main biological cause of depression lies in chemical imbalances within the brain itself, specifically in the receptors for neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, which regulate an individual’s mood. When physical changes in the brain cause dysfunction in these receptors, depression is often the result. Richardson-Delgado notes that there are several interlinking conditions that can cause or exacerbate depression, especially among young adults.
“College is a time when we really see depression start emerging… It’s a time with a lot of changes in someone’s life. Whether they’re leaving home or not, they are trying to figure out where they’re going with their life,” she said. MCC student Daniel Wilson, 23, expressed these same concerns. “Sometimes I feel depressed, mainly because I’m trying to figure out what to do in life, what should be my future job,” he said.
Richardson-Delgado also named social isolation as another contributing factor, particularly for those transitioning from high school to college. “College students often talk about being lonely. In high school maybe they had this core group of people that they hung out with every day that knew them,” she said. “But in college you don’t have that as often. It’s a very lonely, stressful time for students.”
In addition to these social issues, Call recognized factors within the educational world that can precipitate depression and other mental illnesses. “At MCC, we accept everybody,” Call said. “If they can be successful in a semester or two, they can do that. If they can’t, they can feel even more frustration over academics, and that’s one cause of depression.”Both Call and Richardson-Delgado identified high-stress times such as finals week as a potential source of anxiety and depression.
When several or all of these factors converge, the subsequent depression can have enormous adverse effects on students’ performance in school, work, and their social lives. “Some symptoms of depression might be not being able to sleep or sleeping too much, body aches and pains, feeling like nothing is really pleasurable anymore,” Richardson-Delgado said. “It takes over a person’s whole being… It’s all-encompassing.”
While the issue of depression can seem overwhelming, there are several effective ways to treat depression and other mood disorders. Because depression is at least partly a biological matter, the use of medication to restore normal brain function is common and effective, especially when combined with other therapies. “What we see with the general population is that if an individual wants to get treated for depression and they are thinking about medication, they go to their primary care physician,” Richardson-Delgado said. “Where we see the most success is where individuals treat themselves with medication and some sort of cognitive therapy.”
Even with a variety of possible treatments available, people continue to suffer with depression for a number of reasons. “We’re seeing more people seeking treatment, more people getting diagnosed. But there’s absolutely still a stigma attached to mental illness. Some people still feel as if they have to hide it,” Richardson-Delgado said.
If providing treatment for depression is difficult, the issue of preventing it is even more so. “Prevention comes through helping people to recognize it earlier, and hopefully we can catch them before they enter into what we call major depression, and get them the help they need,” he said. Once a patient knows what he or she is up against, the next step is to take action to stop harmful thoughts and behaviors. “There are preventative things that you can do from both a cognitive and a behavioral point of view, and sometimes that also includes the biochemical and biological background to help it,” Call said.