Kinstler: Am I stressed or am I depressed?

Ethan Kinstler, Staff Columnist

Trigger Warning: The following article discusses topics of depression and briefly mentions suicide.

In the past two weeks, have you been feeling off? Disinterested? Tired? Has it been harder for you to get out of bed to make that 10 a.m. Zoom lecture, and not just because you stayed up until 3 a.m. the night before, but because you just can’t find the energy to do so? If you’ve experienced any of the symptoms I’ve named, it could be your body’s way of telling you it’s time to seek help for depression. Talk to a Resident Assistant, or go directly to University Health and Counseling Services, where trained professionals are waiting to help you. 

However, you don’t need to have depression to seek help. For example, maybe you’re just really stressed about a test and don’t know how to deal with it, or maybe you really miss home; these are both completely valid reasons to reach out and don’t necessarily mean you’re having a depressive episode.

Even so, how do you know if you’re stressed or if you’re depressed? Well, depression has specific criteria which help psychologists identify and diagnose it. According to the guidebook for diagnosing psychological disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), depression is defined as a period of a depressed mood lasting two weeks or more in which one feels depressed for all or most of that period. 

But depression is so much more than being sad. 

It can be accompanied by a loss of appetite, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability, hypersomnia (sleeping too much) and anhedonia (a loss of interest in activities), just to name a few symptoms. What’s more, about 7.1% of adults in the U.S. have had at least one major depressive episode in the last year and it’s estimated that about 15% of adults will experience depression in their lifetime.

Yet, having a depressive episode does not necessarily mean you have depression. A depressive episode can be triggered by a variety of different events, such as changes to a daily routine, being in an unfamiliar environment or stress. In fact, the prevalence of a major depressive episode is highest between the ages of 18-25 years old, meaning that many people will experience one in college. The environmental factors associated with college—things like added stress, increased freedom, living independently for the first time, time management, unstable social relationships and the unknown—when coupled with a genetic predisposition to experience stress—can create the perfect sequence of events for a depressive episode to occur.

In other words, if you’re feeling down, you’re not alone and you don’t have to go through it alone.

The word “depression” carries a lot of negative connotations; it adds a level of baggage that can feel exhausting. This baggage causes us to avoid the signs and signals for fear of the diagnosis. We may think of a diagnosis like a door closing; we may think “I’ll never be happy again,” and so we avoid help. However, it is more accurate to think of a diagnosis as a way to open a door. It affords us access to the strategies and resources to help us achieve a more positive outlook. Therefore, when we isolate ourselves from help, we close our own doors.

College can be a stressful time, especially in our given circumstances, and it’s okay to be afraid. Depression can be a dark place. But remember what I said last week, there are resources here to help you screw in that light bulb! 

The diagnosis is just the beginning of your mental health journey. Consider it like putting the keys in the ignition. And remember, on your mental health journey, the only wrong turn you can take is giving up because you owe it to yourself to keep pushing forward.

Know that a diagnosis does not define you, nor does it make you any less of a person or friend, and seeking help does not make you weak. There is great strength in being vulnerable because it takes a resilient person to understand and accept their limitations. If you are struggling with anything, it’s always ok to ask for help. Again, you don’t need to have chronic depression to seek guidance. 

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor.