My 10 Tips for Coping with Depression in College

(I know you have the urge to read the big letters and go but… stay a while!)

Disclaimer: I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist. Here are MY tips based on MY experience. I think this is valuable because I’m going through it too! I know that what’s difficult about these lists for me is that they can feel counterintuitive. Why are you telling me to get up and do things? I’m depressed and I don’t want to do anything. I get it. So I’ll be gentle. I hope this list feels different for you. 

In my experience growing up in Jamaica, many things were ‘‘off limits’‘ or too taboo to speak about. Colonialism really did that. It left behind nations of disenfranchised people who had to fight everyday to survive. One of the ways we instinctively know how to survive is to fight. And sometimes fighting means repressing our experiences, feelings and emotions to get through. To persevere. To not dwell on how we feel so we can face each new day with gusto. We see this in the “just go to church” when you say you’re sad. “My dear, do you pray?” In the “it’s just a phase, man. She soon get over it!” We hear it in the “dont worry about a thing cause every little thing is gonna be alright.” May Bob sleep in peace lol, but sometimes everything won’t be ok. Sometimes folks may need help for it to be ok. More specifically, some people are depressed. 

Even more specifically, I am depressed. (Medically known as persistent depressive disorder). It feels both refreshing and unfamiliar to admit this to you. 

To some, this kind of candor, that is, understanding and speaking about their depression, has been something they’ve known their entire lives. To others, like me, we had no idea what depression even was. Our culture didn’t allow it. We blamed ourselves for just not being able to show up. For not showing up physically, like the times we cancelled plans last minute, or couldn’t clean our messy rooms despite our moms begging us to. But also not showing up emotionally, the irritable behavior, the glass half empty responses, the periodic inability to take care of ourselves and inherently, others. We hoped that one day suddenly life would change. 

And so, we dreamed in neon colors. (thanks mickey for the imagery!) With every new goal set, we imagined that this would be it. The next milestone (the next internship, the next school, the next..) would be what made us happy. Somewhere along the road, we learnt that our accomplishments were what made us important. What would make us happy. 

So what happens when college, a place often perceived as the “ultimate ” milestone for people our age, absolutely doesn’t change how you feel? What happens when it actually just gets 100x worse than its ever been? Well, in my case that’s what happened. My unnamed depression was getting more severe. College brought on freedoms and challenges that required adjustment. We talk a lot about adjusting in concrete ways like adjusting to your new roommate, or adjusting to your new course load. But with that, particularly for a depressed person, of course there are mental adjustments too. 

Luckily, I’ve been given/found tools and resources to cope. To some these things may be a given, but this article is for those like me, who have to figure this shit out all on their own. Those who have been taught to repress. Those who don’t make time for themselves. Those who fight the fight everyday as a tool of survival. Here’s survival in ten other forms:

1. Know the Signs

I’d been depressed for so long that I thought my symptoms were just personality traits. I also thought, well, I’m not walking around thinking about killing myself all day so I could never be depressed. Still, in high school, I walked around with a lot of guilt and anger, mostly at myself, for not being able to show up for myself and people the way I wanted to.

Since college, I’ve been in therapy, and it was suggested I see a psychiatrist when I first started. I ended up scoring the highest number on the depression scale  and I was really confused. Once he explained the symptoms it made more sense. I am what is called a “high functioning depressed person.” I found this description of high-functioning depression on and I’d have to say it’s pretty accurate.

“To the outside world, you’re a productive citizen. Some might even say you’re highly successful. But when the workday is done, your internal resources are spent. You beg off dinner with friends because the best you can do is plop onto the couch or dive into bed so you’ll be ready to take on tomorrow.

That’s what life is like when you have what’s sometimes called high-functioning depression. You make do, you get by, you appear to be handling things just fine—but you’re suffering inside”

This isn’t all. If you’re like me, some of the hidden symptoms like irritability, hopelessness, being less optimistic about life, sleeping long hours, social isolation, lack of appetite and more can be really hard to spot. My first tip is to know the signs. You know yourself best, but the lens through which you know yourself may not be 100% true. Knowing the signs is key. You’re not lazy, you’re not incapable, you’re not boring. You may be depressed. And there’s help. For more information, read here

2. Tell Your Friends

The day when I can explain my struggle with mental health without feeling like the biggest burden will be the best day of my life. I’m not there yet, but for now, I’m working on being more open and vulnerable with friends. Telling my friends has been an integral part of getting better. Yes, ultimately, your friends are not responsible for your health. But having friends who are understanding of your shortcomings is crucial. Why? Depressed or not, your friends should respect your boundaries. But on top of that, depression makes withdrawal and isolation feel like the best option. For this reason, it’s important to let your friends know that it’s not that you don’t like their company, it’s just that it’s really hard to leave your room. Depression sucks but it taught me very quickly who is there for me and who is not. Who respects my boundaries and who does not. 

Trust that you’re valued. Trust that the right people will love you despite your struggle with depression. When you’re more comfortable and find friends you trust, ask them to invite you to that party or event anyway. Listen to yourself, but begin by taking baby steps and going out with them sometimes. Sometimes you may really not be up to it but other times you just needed to be pulled out of that slump.

3. Register with your College’s Accommodations Center 

A lot of us have been conditioned to be scared to ask for help. Our nerves make sense, black women are always asked to do everything, instead of having things done for us. But honestly, that voice in your head that’s scared to ask for help is not your burden to carry. It was learned and now it’s time for all of us to slowly unlearn it. Many colleges treat mental illness as an invisible disability. Register and see the ways college campuses can actually help and accommodate you in classes, housing and beyond. This process definitely has its limitations but I include this in the list because in my experience, it can be hard to get the help that is offered without there being an official record of your illness. It would be nice if  simply saying “I’m depressed” would be enough to get your reduced course load or medical leave approved, but y’know, bureaucracy.  

4. Use Calming Colors and Scents in your Room

The reality is, you’ll probably spend a lot of time in your room. Make it your own. For me, having calming colors and scents has been key. It makes me feel like no matter how difficult the day, my room is always a home waiting for me. I also recommend a memory foam bed topper. And checking if your school has a buy/sell page for discounts and bargains. I also have affirmations, vision boards and gifts from friends in my room. Paintings by friends as well. You get the gist. Customize her. If this feels overwhelming, ask for help! 

PS: It was hard to ask my friends for help, but I got a lot of support customizing and organizing my room. Thanks guys, I love you.

5. Get a Sleep Routine 

Try to get 8 hours of sleep at night. A typical adult needs between 6-9 hours of sleep every night to feel rested. This way you can actually track if you’re oversleeping because of depression or because you’re simply tired. If you find yourself sleeping for 12+ hours a day, it may be a sign that you’re finding ways to isolate or shut off your thoughts. Be gentle with yourself if you get more or less than 8. It’s not your fault, it’s your body letting you know that something is off.

6. Eat

A lot of these tips and websites say “eat healthy and well to fight depression.” For some people who are depressed, eating is such a chore. Again, I’m not a professional, but I know from personal experience that sometimes just getting up to eat anything is a win. To take the pressure off, I’m just gonna leave it at “eat.” You’ll figure out how, when, and where. Slowly but surely, and this will become easier as you learn how to cope more. 

7. Be Mindful of your Relationships (Romantic/Sexual)

Depressed or not, college can get lonely. This can lead to the fixation on romantic or sexual relationships to fill a void. This may mean becoming completely reliant on someone to be the source of your happiness. Beware of this. It happens to so many of us,  but it’s a thin line to walk. While I really appreciate being in a relationship where my partner supports me, when they become your only source of support, it can easily become an unfair and unhealthy situation for both you and your partner.