The prevalence of depression amongst university students in the UK is at an all-time high this year, attributable to several factors barring the usual academic learning curves, unfamiliar responsibilities, and homesickness for students studying away from their hometown or country. The student-run mental health helpline, Nightline, has recently reported that the pandemic is still affecting students’ mental health in the UK. In 2020 – 2021, there was a 51.4% increase in calls from students seeking support. The 2021 – 2022% statistics were 30% higher than that. This comes as no surprise; the pandemic triggered one of the most extreme waves of first-onset depression across all age groups.
Furthermore, 91% of students in a recent survey reported they were worried about their finances, with 45% reporting the cost-of-living crisis harming their mental health. A recent study showed that over 300,000 undergraduates this year were facing financial hardship. However, the number of students struggling with depression due to financial pressure is likely to be much higher.
Whatever the cause of depression, it is always valid. Even if you believe that there are people out there who have it infinitely harder, other people’s experiences don’t discredit your own emotions and experiences.
This article will cover some of the most common depression symptoms in students to outline what to look out for. If you find that some or all of the points below apply to you, know that you don’t have to accept depression as your fate while studying at university. Support is available, and there are positive steps you can take to make negating university life easier.
The Eight Main Depression Symptoms in University Students
One of the loudest tell-tale signs of depression is an increase in negative moods and thoughts. If you have found that your self-talk has become increasingly negative, understand that this is a symptom of depression – not a reflection of you or your abilities.
Negative self-talk examples include statements such as “I don’t belong here”, “I’m so stupid”, “I can’t do anything right”, “there’s no point in me even trying anymore” or believing that no one likes you and there is no point in attempting to make friends while you are at university.
Whenever you catch yourself participating in negative self-talk, challenge it. Your thoughts don’t always work in your best interest; by being mindful and practising positive thinking, you can start to repair the damage that depression has done to your confidence, self-worth and self-esteem.
Low Moods & Energy
Low moods can range from feeling numb or empty to feeling short-tempered to not being able to amass interest or enthusiasm for what you usually find enjoyable. Until students experience mental health problems, such as depression, there is no call to monitor emotions or mood by being mindful, so it can be easy to miss this stark sign of depression.
If you suspect you are experiencing depression, start a mood journal to monitor your moods. If you have noticed low moods over the past two weeks, that is a clear sign that you need additional support or to make changes to your routine.
Lack of Interest in Academic Work and Social Events
Acclimatising to university life doesn’t come easily to everyone, but if you have noticed you don’t get the same enjoyment out of the activities you usually enjoy participating in, this could be a depression warning sign. The same goes for dreading heading to lectures, reading course material and writing essays. When experiencing depression, everything can feel redundant, laborious and exhausting. Withdrawing from social interactions and relenting to the lost interest in usual activities, events and hobbies is known as anhedonia. As overwhelming as it can feel, know that there are ways to overcome it, including bolstering your self-care routine, taking small steps towards what you once enjoyed and finding friends who share your interest.
Physical Warning Signs of Depression
The mind and body are two sides of the same coin, and regardless of the stigmatised trope that depression is all in your head, there are several ways depression can show in your body. Depression can be the root cause of exhaustion, aching muscles, headaches, migraines and sickness. If left untreated, depression can lead to chronic illnesses further down the line. If you are struggling with physical warning signs of depression, meditation, and relaxation therapies, such as progressive muscle relaxation and talking therapies, can help to resolve them. However, if the symptoms persist, consult with a GP, as there may be another underlying issue.
Excessive Feelings of Guilt
Depression often causes people who suffer from it to feel guilty. This guilt is usually tied to the belief that you can’t justify your depression as you are in a position of relative privilege. Yet, excessive feelings of guilt can manifest around many different factors, from feeling guilty that you haven’t called home for a while to feeling guilty that you should be making the most of your university experience.
A 2012 study showed that people who had suffered from depression have a weaker connection between the parts of the brain which process guilt and appropriate social behaviour compared to participants who had never been diagnosed with depression. The best ways to overcome guilt as a symptom of depression include practising self-kindness, lowering your cortisol levels through exercise, using a journal to process your feelings, taking time to pause and reflect and voicing your thoughts to a trusted friend or professional.
Irregular Sleeping Patterns or Insomnia
Insomnia can lead to an increased risk of depression, and depression can trigger insomnia. For many students, the cause behind the broken sleep cycles and the inability to sleep can be harder to determine if the chicken or the egg came first.
Regardless of the primary cause between the sleepless nights and the subsequent exhaustion, many ways to overcome insomnia and depression are the same, such as meditating before going to bed, getting exercise throughout the day, and breathing exercises to push away racing and ruminating thoughts.
In some other cases, Depression might lead to oversleeping. Students experiencing depression may find themselves sleeping more than usual, resulting in a negative cycle of guilt over wasting hours in the day or feeling lazy. Oversleeping is often a coping mechanism to avoid the emotional distress of depression.
A Change in Eating Habits
While some students experiencing depression will comfort eat, others will lose their appetite as a result of their mood. Whichever end of the spectrum, the change in eating habits is often a stark sign of depression, which will ultimately exacerbate the negative emotional state when the brain doesn’t get the nutrients it needs.
There are many reasons why depression can interfere with appetite. Some of the main ones are depression’s ability to take away the pleasure of food, the fatigue of depression affecting the motivation to cook healthy meals, and depression leaving people feeling too worthless to take care of themselves properly.
Sticking to a routine of eating regular healthy meals rich in B12, omega-3, folic acids, and amino acids can help boost moods. Self-care will be the foundation of your recovery. You don’t need to make Instagram-worthy healthy meals three times a day and live the perfect routine. In the beginning, take small manageable steps towards a healthier lifestyle.
If you are having difficulty concentrating in lectures or making decisions, the cognitive impairment or brain fog caused by depression might be the underlying cause. Some students with depression may feel forgetful, inattentive or as though their thoughts have slowed down so much, they’ve almost ground to a halt. This can also be a secondary symptom of exhaustion. To sharpen your focus again, make exercise a part of your routine, and do what you can to eliminate unnecessary stress.
Common causes of depression in university students
Being a student means you’re expected to juggle coursework, extracurricular activities, and perhaps even a part-time job. It’s no wonder that depression sometimes sneaks into the mix. Some of the most common causes of students depression are:
- the stress of exams, assignments, and maintaining high grades
- Struggling to manage tuition fees, living expenses, or student loans
- feeling lonely or struggling to make friends in a new environment
- homesickness: being away from home and missing family and familiar surroundings
- uncertain future: concerns about post-graduation plans and job prospects
- high expectations: unrealistic expectations from oneself or pressure from family can contribute to feelings of inadequacy
Depression among students is undeniably a pressing and escalating issue, and should remind you that one is never alone in facing these challenges; many other students may also be silently struggling with depression.
If you are currently struggling with any of the eight common symptoms of depression or know someone that is, reach out to the support services at UWS or contact organisations such as MIND, Nightline and Student Minds. Depression often leaves people feeling like they shouldn’t reach out for support by making those suffering it feel worthless; support services are ready and waiting to lend a non-judgemental ear and signpost further services, should you require them.