Is Your College Student Depressed?

Is your college student depressed?

Many students find the transition between high school and college more challenging than they expect. There’s so much to get used to – a new environment, different academic expectations, and being away from home. This reality can lead to depression, a growing problem on college campuses throughout the United States. But despite your son or daughter being away at school, you are well-positioned to help.

What is depression?

Let’s begin with what depression isn’t. Depression is not a single episode of sadness. Students who suffer from depression can’t just “get over it.” It’s a real disease that causes a consistent state of unhappiness (at least two weeks or more) and a possible loss of interest in schoolwork, activities, and friendships.

A college student who struggles with depression may exhibit symptoms inconsistent with how parents generally think of sadness. Among the less obvious signs are:   

  • Irritability
  • Not sleeping well or sleeping too much
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Belly pain, muscle aches, or headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering 

Why is depression so concerning?

Students with depression can have trouble focusing in class and on homework. Their grades may take a dip. These students are also at risk of developing dangerous coping mechanisms such as binge drinking and illegal drug use. In the worst case scenario they are also at increased risk of suicide. 

Students who suffer from depression can’t just ‘get over it.’

Overlooked sources of depression

We’ve explored several reasons students may become depressed while away at school. Yet there are two other causes that go unnoticed too often. 

Pay attention to these hidden causes:

Grief, Loss, and Mourning

Before they reach the age of 18, it’s estimated that 1 out of 14 children, tweens, and teens in the United States will experience the death of a parent or sibling. Of course, students don’t leave their emotions at home when they graduate high school — they take these experiences with them to college. In addition, while enrolled in college, 1 in 3 students report experiencing an important loss within the last 12 months.

Not addressing grief on campus can lead to depression. College students may feel particularly isolated because many of their peers have never experienced a loss. This, in turn, places grieving college students at risk of not receiving the kind of support or empathy they need.  

Well-Meaning Parents

We know college students benefit from parental engagement. Parents continue to play an essential role in their college-age son and daughter’s life and are important in shaping their overall well-being. Yet, challenges may arrive when parents are too involved. 

Parents who spend too much time smoothing their child’s path in college, who attempt to clear every hurdle, may be putting their older adolescent’s development at risk. Post-high school helicopter parenting is linked to students feeling less competent to accomplish tasks on their own. This over-involvement is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. It may also send an unintended message that parents don’t think their young people are capable of doing things themselves.

Parental Support that Works

The college years offer an unrivaled opportunity for parents to positively impact their students’ lives. Supportive messaging lets your son or daughter know you love them – no matter what. This critical stage, the moment when adolescents are transitioning into young adulthood, is an exciting time in identity development, and parents play an essential role.  

Yet parental responsibilities are different during the college years. Parents need to be supporters and cheerleaders, not directors. Parents must embrace their college students’ growing independence and ability to rely on themselves. Your students are not gone for good; they’re just in flight. Trust you have set the stage for them to navigate campus while knowing they can call home whenever they need your love and support. 

Getting Professional Help

Students should check with their school’s health office to connect with appropriate professionals and programs. Resources are likely listed online. 

The Center for Parent and Teen Communication has exceptional resources, too. You may want to read “5 Ways to Support Teens Dealing with Depression,” “Recognizing Signs of Depression in Teens,” and “Warning Signs Your Teen Could Be at Risk for Suicide, and Getting Teens Professional Help” Your college student may also want to create a personalized stress management plan to help cope. Our interactive guide provides step-by-step tools for creating one.

If you’re seeking additional guidance, the below national organizations are worth exploring: 

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

An international group of mental health professionals who concentrate on the prevention and treatment of anxiety, depression, and other disorders.  

Active Minds

This organization focuses on mental health on college campuses. There are more than 450 chapters across the country.

Jed Foundation

A non-profit supporting teens and young adults with suicide prevention programs and mental health education.

Actively Moving Forward

AMF is uniquely positioned to provide resources to college students who suffer from depression and other complications due to the loss of a loved one. Chapters are available on college campuses across the country.  

Art by: Aisa Binhashim/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

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