Depression affects a quarter of students. Most are too embarrassed to seek help.
The first time Nicole tried committing suicide, she was home alone.
She had set up a contraption to hang herself in the living room of her home.
“I would have preferred a gun, because it’s faster and requires less suffering, but this was much more accessible and easier to set up,” she said.
Ever since she can remember, Nicole has felt extremely depressed.
And she does not know the source of it.
“I first noticed my sad feelings in middle school,” Nicole said. “I just thought I was emotional and bummed out; I thought that was how it was going to stay and I should get used to it.”
As Nicole set up her contraption, she laid a note out for her family to find later. Partway through her attempt, she said “a wave of reality” set in and she realized that what she was doing was stupid and poorly thought out.
“It was difficult to get out of the mechanism I had dreamed up, but once I did, I sat down and cried,” she said.
Since then, she has burned all of the letters that she had set out before both attempts at her life.
At this point, she did not know that her thoughts of suicide and consistent depressed mood were stemming from depression, a real mental illness. She was only 14 years old, an age in which she thought the disorder could not exist.
“I then started to look up all of my symptoms, like any person would who was afraid,” said Nicole, who agreed to tell her story only if her real name was not used. “I noticed that no matter how I worded my feelings and symptoms, they would always lead to ‘major depressive disorder’ when I used search engines online.”
Nicole was diagnosed by her family doctor as a chronic sufferer of “major depressive disorder,” which is defined as a mental illness that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest in things that once brought pleasure.
The disorder affects how the person feels, thinks and behaves, including affecting how someone does his or her day-to-day activities.
Nicole is now a junior at the University of La Verne; her struggles with depression persist.
Since her diagnosis, she has repeatedly refused to take any antidepressants because she said she is afraid of the side effects.
Most antidepressants primarily work on brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and norepinephrine, which promote feelings of happiness at normal levels.
Other antidepressants work on the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is a chemical messenger, similar to adrenaline, and affects the brain processes that control movement, emotional response and the capacity to feel pleasure and pain.
Scientists have found that these particular chemicals are involved in regulating mood, but they are unsure of the exact ways that they work, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Approximately 44 percent of American college students have reported feeling the symptoms of depression at some point, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.
The largest barrier preventing people from seeking the help they need is the stigma they feel at the notion of being labeled clinically depressed.
“I’ve never taken any sort of medication, but rather found therapeutic forms of release,” Nicole said.
“I found that music and art helped channel my feelings in a healthy way.”
She said that this sort of self-help therapy only works to a certain extent and does not cure her sad feelings, but sometimes helps get her through the worst times.
“While someone is going through the episodes of sadness, many will turn to therapeutic forms of release,” said Kathy Ellis, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Chino Valley.
Ellis said exercising can raise neurotransmitter levels in the brain. Another way to raise levels in the brain is laughter.
“A funny movie can often give those suffering from major depressive disorder some relief,” Ellis said.
Depression and college stress, or concerns among many undergraduates, are often related to self-esteem, according to a study done by Sarah K. Dixon and Sharon E. Robinson Kurpius in October 2008.
“The worst part of my depression is I have no pinpointed source for it,” Nicole said. “I just want to know why my brain does this to me.”
“Most depression stems off of things that are happening in the person’s environment, even if they do not know where it is coming from,” Ellis said.
Nicole said her depressive episodes seem to “hit” her out of nowhere. She describes the episodes as paralyzing “like a crushing feeling.”
“My biggest way of avoiding the depressive episodes is to stay pumped and around people,” she said. “I always tell myself, ‘I fall seven times, but I’ll stand up eight.’”
Nicole says listening to her favorite band, Rise Against, always makes her feel better. Two songs, “Survive” and “Broken English,” have lyrics that “touch her deep down.”
Life for you has been less than kind/So take a number, stand in line/We’ve all been sorry, we’ve all been hurt/But how we survive is what makes us who we are, the band sings in their song, “Survive.”
When she hurts the most, she said she turns to the music and blasts it in her room or car just to release her anguish and pain.
“People ask me why I just don’t go on medication instead of using these other forms of release,” Nicole said.
“I tell them I don’t want the medication to affect or change my current personality. I also don’t want to have to rely on that crutch for the rest of my life.”
She said that she probably struggles a little more than those who are on the medication, but she can successfully “keep her head above water;” medication does not always fix problems.
“I always say it sounds cliché, but my depression was at its worst after a break-up when I was 17 years old,” she said. “It completely blindsided me and knocked me down.”
After two attempts at suicide, she realized that suicide was not the answer to her pain.
Depressive symptoms are not the same for every individual. Episodes vary in length, type and severity.
Going to college can add to the severity and type of symptoms each person experiences, because of the increased stress of living on their own and dealing with adult situations.
While mild depression tends to be okay, those whose depression interferes with their daily life should seek professional help.
Most should seek professional help as there could be a correctable chemical imbalance in their brain, according to NAMI.
Many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment, even though most of them desire to be helped. This is usually due to the fact they do not know where to turn or there is a family taboo.
“I would totally go to a therapist for (cognitive behavioral therapy) but I’m slightly ashamed,” Nicole said. “I know my current methods will only take me so far and there will come a time when I need extra help.”
Two-thirds of college students suffering from depression do not talk about or seek help for mental health problems, according to NAMI.
Nicole is ashamed to go to a therapist because her family has created a negative stigma about depression and therapy, saying things like, “You don’t need to tell people your problems” or that depression does not exist.
“It’s horrible because they say I can just deal with it. My brother and extended family would look down on me,” she said.
“Clinical depression refers to feeling sad or depressed for weeks or months on end, not just a passing blue mood,” said John M. Grohol, psychologist and CEO of PsychCentral.com, the Internet’s largest and oldest independent mental health and psychology network.
“A person who is depressed cannot get moving and they feel completely unmotivated to do anything.”
Grohol said that treatment takes time, once the affected person accepts their depression. Psychotherapy and/or medications can be used, but do not always show instantaneous results, which is what most patients are looking for.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, emphasis is placed on discussing the depressive thoughts and connecting behaviors that stem off of them.
This is the best for those that are experiencing a lot of distress relating to their depression, according to Grohol.
After baring her soul and deepest secrets, Nicole took a step back and said she “is normally fine.”
But there are some debilitating moments that she can’t do anything; she cannot move or think.
She said it is very hard to pull herself out of those episodes and that they resemble an antidepressant commercial.
“Although these episodes are excruciating, I always feel better once I find a release in my music and art,” Nicole said. “I’m hopeful that I’ll have the courage to go to therapy one day, but until that comes, I’ll hang in there.”
Kristen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.