The struggles of depression at university

No matter the state of your mental health, arriving at university for the first time is one of the scariest, most overwhelming experiences that a young person can be subjected to. Leaving behind your friends, family and familiar home comforts brings with it a massive upheaval – and there’s no guarantee that you won’t regret your decision to attend. In most cases, students are able to adjust to their new life, and university is a place where you find yourself, channel your interests into developing a career, and form lifelong friendships. However, what about those who never quite feel at home?

At the University of Cambridge alone, an internal survey found that 21% of students have been diagnosed with depression, whilst a further 25% believed that they showed enough symptoms to self-diagnose themselves with the illness. The most commonly presented statistic suggested that 20% of individuals will suffer from depression at some point in their life, but the worrying further 25% who have self diagnosed themselves suggests that university may well be a serious trigger for mental health issues.

It’s often considered that the causes of depression can roughly fit into one of three categories:

– Psychological factors: thinking habits and/or personal history

– Biological factors: brain chemistry, hormones and/or genetics

– Social factors: social status, isolation from those who support you and/or financial position

Moving to university can therefore cause depression through social factors; all three examples may occur to you upon arrival (you may not find the right group of friends; you’re away from your family; you’re managing your own money, probably for the first time).

The out-of-control feelings experiencecd by some at university – whether it be feeling unable to keep up with the work load, or strain on your body caused by one too many Fruity Fridays – may mean you’re not looking after yourself properly, prioritising other things over your health, both mental and physical.

One of the best explanations as to why Oxbridge students are often thought to be most susceptible to depression, as well as other mental health issues, is the notion that the out-of-control feelings are the sparks of depression. At no other universities are there such expectations of excellence – for many students, attendance has been their lifelong dream – failure to live up to those high standards may seem unacceptable. However, it’s not only those at the most prestigious universities suffering from the gripes of mental illness. Just a little added stress from university may be enough to allow depression to creep into your mind, especially if biological and/or psychological factors are involved.

Biologically, the theories behind the causes of depression mainly involve brain chemistry, affected by both hormones and genetics. Brain chemistry is partly affected by neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that enable the communication of chemical messages through the brain. There are several types of neurotransmitters thought to be associated with depression, one of which is serotonin. Serotonin enables many different types of messages to be carried throughout the brain; examples of these include information about sleep, stress response, mood and apetite. As a result, a decrease in serotonin levels within the brain is believed to be linked to symptoms of depression.

A decrease in seratonin levels could be a result of your genetics – e.g. if one of your parents has a gene which commands a below-average production of serotonin, you may also have this gene, or imbalances in hormone levels can cause changes in your neurotransmitter balance.

Psychologically, certain personality traits increase people’s chances of developing depression. These traits include excess pessimism, perfectionism, or sensitivity to rejection. Whilst most people have days when they don’t see themselves in the most positive light, constant negativity is like a gateway for depression.

Socially, univeristy can be a daunting battleground. The stigma associated with finding lifelong friends at university is prevalent within the first year, where the people you are put in a flat with are expected to be your friends for the duration of the degree. However, a lot of students find themselves excluded and lonely in their own flat or house, due to differing lifestyle choices or course structures. Financial status can also play a role in the social circles you find yourself in at university, meaning conflicts between social groups as well as individuals can leave students feeling inadequate or judged, purely because of their social background or upbringing.

But how do you know if always feeling tired or overwhelmed is a side effect of your new university life, or something more sinister? Warning signs that you have a mental health issue include a persistent low mood, a loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, irregular sleep patterns and difficulty concentrating. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek help as soon as possible, even if just to get your worries off of your chest.


If you’re concerned about yourself or anyone close to you, contact Leeds Nightline on 0113 380 1381 for their listening service or 0113 380 1380 for their information service between 8pm-8am, or access their website


Hilary Robinson

Feature Image: Flickr/Ryan Melaugh

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