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I Don't Have to Feel This Way?

How to Recognize Depression and What to Do About It at Harvard

By Christine Hollis and Susan Morgan

Have you been feeling sad or emotionally drained for the past few weeks? Does it seem as though you just have no interest in school or friends anymore? Have you had problems concentrating in class, and are your grades slipping as a result? Do you feel anxious much of the time? Have you been drinking more to numb the "pain" you're feeling?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is yes, maybe it is just a funk, a normal response to college pressures, but it could also be depression or an anxiety disorder.

College is an exciting time in a student's life, but it is also demanding and complex. Sometimes academic and social challenges and changes can seem overpowering. Seven out of 10 college students say they feel stressed or tense at least once a week. One in four feels "blue" or "down" at least once a week. It is not uncommon to feel down or anxious at times, but these feelings can become a problem if they continue for more than a few weeks, or if they affect one's life negatively.

One in five students worries that their stress or depression is "outside the norm." Unfortunately, not many college students or faculty are aware that the first signs of mental illness--such as depression or anxiety disorders--often begin between the ages of 18 and 25, nor are they alert to the symptoms. To make matters worse, many students are on their own for the first time, and unfamiliar with the support network that could recognize troubling signs and help them.

Students may suffer from depression or anxiety disorders serious enough to require treatment. The good news is that effective treatment is available, especially if the problem is detected and treated early. Close to 90 percent of people diagnosed with clinical depression get better with treatment, which does not always require medication. Depression is not the result of being a weak person, not strong willed enough to "tough it out."

Depression is an illness, a "whole body" illness that affects the way one feels about oneself, the way one acts, or the way one perceives things. A depressed person cannot "snap out of it" any more than a person with mono or cancer can. More than 17 million Americans suffer from this clinical depression. Twice as many women are afflicted as men.

Although any change in usual behavior should be a red flag, one should seek help if the following symptoms persist for more than two weeks or what seems unusual:

* Sadness and/or anxiety.

* Marked change in sleeping habits.

* Inability to enjoy activities.

* Noticeable change in appetite with possible weight loss or gain.

* Physical symptoms like persistent headaches or stomach aches.

* Loss of energy, fatigue.

* Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness.

* Indecisiveness, inability to concentrate.

* Recurring thoughts of suicide or death.

Some people may suffer from anxiety as well as depression. Some other signs of anxiety include unrealistic worry, rapid pulse or pounding heart, chest pain and feelings of dread or losing control.

Unfortunately, some people are embarrassed or reluctant to seek help for these symptoms, or too tired to get treatment. But without treatment, the illness can last years or for a lifetime. Most doctors feel that depression underlies the majority of suicides; suicide is the third leading cause of death among people ages 15-24. One of the best strategies to avoid suicidal behavior is to seek, or to help those depressed to seek treatment at an early stage. Even for those with severe depression, treatment is very effective.

Harvard is concerned with the well being of all its students and offers a variety of services to best help any who feel they may have symptoms of depression or other mental health problems. For those who are unsure, or hesitant to take a first step, Harvard University Health Services is offering a totally anonymous telephone screening test for depression.

Students can call the following toll free number: 1-800-729-8269, respond to pre-recorded questions with a touchtone telephone key pad and get an assessment of their symptoms. Referral resources are also listed should they need follow-up assistance. This screening service is available to Harvard students through December 31, 1997. The UHS Mental Health Service at 495-2042 also provides confidential counseling and treatment services for a variety of emotional needs or problems, at either the Holyoke Center or the Business School, Law School and Medical School Area Health Services. The Bureau of Study Counsel (495-2581) also provides confidential counseling services to help students cope with complex life issues at Harvard, including mental health issues.

If you have had symptoms of depression, or if you know someone who has had them, seek a health care provider as soon as possible. It is important to remember that if one gets treatment, one can get well!

Christine Hollis is manager, Center for Wellness and Health Communication, UHS; Susan Morgan is a clinical nurse specialist in mental health, UHS.

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