SPOKANE, Wash. - Over the next few weeks, thousands of students will make their way back to the Inland Northwest for the first month of college classes. It's an exciting time, but it can take a toll on some students.
A recent study from the American College Health Association found 41% of college kids felt so depressed it was difficult to function that year, while 63% said they were being weighed down by overwhelming anxiety.
Counselors at local colleges say some of those feelings stem from a difficulty transitioning to their new life on a college campus.
"They're kind of just uprooted and brought up here and they don't have all of those friends around them anymore and so that support network that they have, isn't with them anymore," said Dr. Jessica Mason, who serves as the assistant director of counseling services at WSU Spokane.
Without that support system, the stress of a heavier course load can feel even bigger.
"We deal with that every year or even every semester, we have those students who realize that this was not for them, or they pick the wrong career path or they just don't think they can hack it in that field," said Dr. Mason.
Students are also grappling with the idea that they need to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives at 18 years old.
"They feel an enormous pressure on themselves to figure out what their academic major is going to be and most importantly, what is their vocational long-term path that they're going to follow?," said Dr. Fernando Ortiz, who's worked with students at Gonzaga for the last ten years.
Couple that fear of the future with having to navigate new friendships and a new lifestyle that might include alcohol, drugs, less sleep and cafeteria food, those stressors could weigh on anyone.
"There's going to be a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty and with that ambiguity, obviously, they're going to experience a lot of stress and anxiety," said Dr. Ortiz.
Dr. Ortiz recommends reaching out to a roommate, friend or parent as soon as depression and anxiety start to chip away, rather than waiting for those feelings to build up over time.
Research shows 75% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin start to develop at 24 years old, which is why it's important to seek help for mental health symptoms as soon as you notice them.
"If you address some of these experiences early on, your prognosis is going to be more positive," said Dr. Ortiz.
Over the years, he's seen the stigma surrounding mental health fade away, so more students are seeking help -- but that doesn't mean parents can't still do their part. Whether parents start to notice a change in their child's behavior over the phone or while visiting, counselors encourage them to listen, ask how their children are feeling. If the depression and anxiety persist, he urges parents to recommend reaching out to a counselor.
"I think of it as normalizing, you know and I think that's a big part of counseling -- is letting people know 'you're not alone, this is a normal thing to experience this," said Dr. Deanna Ortiz from WSU Spokane.
Beyond counseling, she says there are other coping mechanisms anyone can use when they feel depressed or anxious -- from eating healthy foods, finding an exercise routine, getting more sleep, to finding what relaxes them most.
If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety or depression, you can reach out to counselors on campus with the WSU AWARE Network or access Gonzaga's well-being resources here. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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