One of the names in this story has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.
Depression. The word conjures up images of empty pill bottles, tears and being unable to even get out of bed or complete day-to-day tasks. The hallmarks of depression are thought to be obvious: sadness, crying and a loss of motivation.
But for students like like senior English major Lauren, depression has become an invisible, yet pervasive part of her life that she said it is sometimes difficult to separate from her actual personality. Because she is able to keep up with her responsibilities and maintain a routine, Lauren said that usually, no one questions her mental health.
“I feel like I have absorbed my depression, which I hate,” Lauren said. “I feel like there are two layers to me, the one on the outside that seems happy, or at least content, always willing to smile and laugh, and the second deeper one, the one that is stone-faced and just trying to get through the day unnoticed without crumbling the outer layer.”
Jeanne Walker, the director of Student Psychological Counseling Services (SPCS), said that many of the 62 percent of students who receive counseling for depression at SPCS experience what is known as high-functioning depression – where students may feel sad, unmotivated and apathetic, but oftentimes don’t show symptoms that are clearly visible to those around them.
These students tend to hide their symptoms from family and friends. Most attend class regularly and manage to maintain their responsibilities, appearing happy.
“It’s just like powering through something, even though you don’t feel good about it,” Walker said. “They might be able to continue with their classes and kind of go through, but still feel very depressed or very down. So depression is funny, because sometimes it can cater to that kind of attitude. Just, ‘I don’t like this, but I’m going to do this because I have to.’”
Although Lauren has had moments when she has seriously contemplated committing suicide, no one aside from a few family members and a close friend knows about her depression.
Nicknamed “Miss Smiley” as a child, Lauren believes that her tendency to put on a happy facade gave her the ability to deflect deeper questions about how she was feeling.
“When I smiled, they believed the ‘I’m fine’ that followed their asking how I was doing. It distracted them from believing anything different,” Lauren said. “I’m still smiley, my best and worst trait, I suppose, and people still have no idea. Even my boyfriend doesn’t know the full extent of my depression. I shield him from it as much as I can, because it can cripple a person and definitely suffocate a relationship.”
Lauren is one of many college students who have been dealing with what Walker would categorize as high-functioning depression. However, some students also experience biological depression, which Walker says can result from a variety of different factors, including a family history of depression or other mental disorders.
“There are times when a depression is a biological depression and it can hit at a certain age. Sometimes, it doesn’t make any sense,” Walker said. “You can’t pinpoint why this happened. And that’s very distressing for people, because suddenly, they realize ‘I’m not the same person as I was, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’ It’s not always something that you can identify.”
Erin Fleming, a senior digital arts major, went to the counseling center for help with her eating disorder, body dysmorphia and depression. Body dysmorphia is the obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance, according to the Mayo Clinic. Fleming said that when she was in high school, she had a tendency to self-diagnose, and was initially reluctant to label herself as having depression because she feared that people would think she was seeking attention.
“I was diagnosed with depression freshman year, which was not surprising to anyone. It runs in my family. My mom has been treated for it,” Fleming said. “(Depression and body dysmorphia) are really scary. I didn’t want to say them out loud, because I didn’t want to call attention to myself or have people see it as a cry for attention. But then again, it is. And that’s not a bad thing; that’s also a cry for help. But I was a very prideful kid who didn’t want to ask for help, so I was afraid of those titles.”
Walker said that while the stigma around mental health has lessened, people are still afraid of being viewed as having a mental illness, whether it’s due to family expectations or a fear of negative backlash from their peers.
“People don’t want to be seen as depressed, and if they do allow themselves to show their depression, a lot of times they get negative results from their friends,” Walker said. “Or their friends just don’t understand it, and they kind of want to move away rather than support. I think people will try to put on a happy face. I certainly hear that all the time. But that takes a lot of energy, to put on a happy face when you’re that depressed. And internally, it makes it worse.”
Walker recommends cognitive behavioral therapy or medication for depression, depending on the severity and type. Situational depression, which happens when a traumatic or life-changing event has taken place, can generally be helped with cognitive behavioral therapy. However, for more long-term depression and biological depression, Walker said that medication can be beneficial.
Dani Smith, the university rape crisis counselor, said that oftentimes, depression can be combatted by sticking to a routine.
“It’s about developing healthy lifestyles,” Smith said. “When you are depressed, you have physiological changes in your body. If you are dealing with it in an unhealthy way, it’s going to start to show in your health. It is cognitively the same way. The key to all of this is developing healthy coping skills that we practice every day.”
Lauren said that adopting a healthy diet and solid routine has been integral in helping her keep her depression somewhat under control. However, she said that sometimes, her need to adhere to a strict pattern has impeded on other aspects of her life.
“The routine has become key; it’s my main method of coping,” Lauren said. “Since I was really young I have needed, constantly, to have everything written down on a checklist. That was how I dealt with it then and I do the same thing now. When you feel out of control, you try to find one thing you can control. For me, my diet and my schedule are those things, and I cling to them to get me through, often at the expense of other things, like a normal social life.”
For students like Lauren who have trouble allowing anyone to see them with anything but a happy face, Walker said that in order to move toward keeping depression under control, it’s important to be honest about feelings and struggles.
“(People who have depression) have to be willing to let down and show how they really feel. And some people have a really hard time with that,” Walker said. “Partly because of how they’ve been taught to behave. I remember my mother saying, ‘Never air your dirty laundry in public.’ You never show the downside. And those are messages that we get as kids that really sink in and change the way we behave.”