Cycling through the Blues: The Impact of Systemic External Stressors on Student Mental States and Symptoms of Depression

By Goldring, Michelle A. | College Student Journal, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Cycling through the Blues: The Impact of Systemic External Stressors on Student Mental States and Symptoms of Depression


Goldring, Michelle A., College Student Journal


Recent literature on depression and mental stress has recognized that college students face a unique set of pressures in the academic arena which render them vulnerable to lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. A 1994 study found that young adults in the United States had a higher incidence of depression than did other age groups (Blazer, Kessler, McGonagle, and Swartz 1994). Research on mental health among college students also demonstrates an increase in chronically distressed students. Distressed students may perform poorly in school, affecting outcomes in ways that expand beyond the students' emotional well-being to academic grades and potential graduation for the distressed students, as well as for those with whom they interact (Kitzrow 2003). Further, dealing with a distressed friend creates an added level of mental anguish in the supporter's life. In this sense, mental health issues can be thought of as "contagious." The urgency of this issue is noted in a 2008 study at Emory University, which found markedly high levels of current and past suicide ideation within the portion of the student body that was at risk for depression based on the patient health questionnaire (PHQ-9) (Garlow et al. 2008). The PHQ-9 is an instrument that surveys the DSM--IV criteria for depression (American Psychiatric Association 2000). While this may not seem like a particularly surprising result, the researchers also noted a lack of use of treatment. Although one quarter of their sample exhibited severe depressive symptoms, only half are received any kind of psychological or pharmacological treatment (Garlow et al. 2008).

Though Garlow, et al. study itself focused on extremes of depression and suicidal tendencies, it also presents a grave picture of the overall state of the student body in terms of less severe depressive symptoms, an area which is often overlooked in academic studies of mental health. Research suggests that even mild levels of depression may contribute to decreased academic performance (Deroma, Leach, and Leverett 2009). In a non-random volunteer sample of 729 Emory University undergraduates taken over the course of three years, only 16.5% of the sample was classified as non-depressed. Of the remaining percentage, 29.6% were classified as mildly depressed (Garlow et al 2008). Because the sample was taken on a volunteer basis, these results should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, these numbers have important implications for the study at hand. Garlow, et al.'s study suggests that depression is rampant on college campuses. The pervasiveness of this issue across a campus may be far larger than a campus mental health facility might have anticipated. Levels of mild depression often fluctuate and may not seem to be cause for concern. However, those factors which contribute to mild depression are often those which contribute to more severe episodes of depression (American Psychiatric Association 2000). By only dealing with those students who exhibit clear symptoms of clinical depression and ignoring the stunningly high number of students who experience some non-clinical level of depression, we miss an opportunity to prevent these symptoms from escalating into a more severe problem, and a chance to better understand how depression begins.

The following research may help to highlight the initial step in dealing with this issue by helping to uncover the features of the campus environment that may contribute to instances of mild depression. Knowing how these supposedly minor instances occur could have more far-reaching consequences in the areas of prevention, both at the meso-level (the school itself) and in terms of identifying who might be at risk based on commonalities of experience (Aneshensel and Phelan 1999). Further, scholarly work on depression and self-esteem tends to look at individual students and their experiences. But the pervasiveness of depressive symptoms among college students, including those who would not be classified as clinically depressed, suggests that we should look at what these individuals share--the systems they are a part of and the institutions in which they are embedded. …

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Cycling through the Blues: The Impact of Systemic External Stressors on Student Mental States and Symptoms of Depression
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