Dear Alice,

How can you tell if you are psychologically depressed? How do you ask? What if you are only depressed sometimes? I am a first-year psychology student, I live in college, and I seem to be having plenty of mood swings lately. I used to be very bubbly and enthusiastic and happy and relaxed all the time, but lately, I've just been edgy and sad, and I cry a lot. What's going on? I've been at university now for nine months. I'm only seventeen, and I live away from home (and I'm happy about that). I still have fun sometimes, and I get involved a lot, but then something will happen and I just bomb. I feel helpless and useless and angry because I am unappreciated. It annoys my friends and that makes me feel even worse. What's going on?

Dear Reader,

It sounds like you are having a rough time. Rest assured that many people have felt similar to the way you describe. Mood swings, when precipitated by particular events in one's life, are a normal response to the stresses, happy times, and difficulties we all experience. Many people feel low after being turned down for a date, having trouble on a test, or arguing with a loved one. It's not fair to expect yourself (or anyone else, for that matter) to be feeling excited and at ease all the time. However, if your changes in mood don't seem to be connected to actual life events, are out of proportion, or significantly impair your ability to function, you may be experiencing a diagnosable level of depression.

Clinically diagnosable depressions vary in terms of severity and symptoms. The two main aspects of a major depression include:

  • continual feelings of sadness and emptiness
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable, including sex

Other symptoms to look for are:

  • decreased energy, fatigue, and feeling slowed down
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • sleep problems (i.e., insomnia, oversleeping)
  • eating problems (i.e., disinterest in food, weight loss, and/or overeating)
  • irritability, excessive anger, or frustration
  • feelings of irrational guilt and worthlessness
  • excessive crying
  • chronic physical aches and pains that don't respond to treatment
  • feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

In order for your troubling feelings to be considered a major depression, many of the above symptoms must be noted for most of the day, almost every day, and for at least two weeks.

If you've noticed only a few of these symptoms, but they've lasted for two weeks or more, you may still have a lesser persistent and apparent form of depression, such as:

  • recurrent depressive syndrome
  • dysthymia
  • subthreshold symptomatic disorder

Depression exists on a wide continuum. There is no way to pinpoint exactly how depressed a person is. The important thing is that if your mood is affecting or disrupting your way of life or your interaction with family and friends, seeing a mental health professional is a smart way to figure out what is going on. Only a clinician can properly help determine the best course of action for you.

Speaking with a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist can help you identify which of these feelings you're experiencing and what might be causing them. Counseling provides time and opportunity to explore what's behind the sad, angry, frustrated feelings. This is designed to help provide insight and allow people to feel more in control of their lives, ultimately lifting them out of their moody, depressed state. Depression can also be caused, in part, by an imbalance of brain chemicals, and medication can make a significant difference. Since most schools have counseling services, or have access to them, you can begin by contacting your health service or health care provider to arrange an appointment. If you're at Columbia, you can call Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) at 212-854-2878 on the Morningside Campus or Mental Health Services at 212-305-3400 on the CUMC campus.

Your feelings also could be connected with recent life events. You've mentioned that you've been away at school for nine months. How long have you noticed feeling "edgy and sad?" Did those emotions start as soon as you got to school? Perhaps they intensified after midterms, the first semester, or finals. Perhaps one or some of your relationships changed during that period. Sometimes emotional responses that seem to have no specific cause are actually connected to changes in one's life that have felt inevitable or about which you feel powerless. For example, a part of you may be reacting to missing your family, your hometown, or familiar surroundings. This might be especially true if you haven't experienced being either far from home or away from home for extended periods before. Speaking of family, talking with your parents, or contacting some friends from back home, may help you to feel more connected.

New students can feel pressure to continue hanging out with their new college pals, even if they've realized that their interactions don't feel great. Are there certain people or situations that consistently make you feel unappreciated? Students make friends and find partners all through their college years, so your first year is not your only opportunity. How do you feel when you spend time with people and when you participate in activities or student groups? It's okay to cut out those that leave you feeling bad, and you can focus instead on the people and actions that boost your mood and self-esteem.

It's also important to rule out any medical causes for your changes in mood. Perhaps your sleep or eating patterns affect your mood. Or, if you use alcohol and/or other drugs, perhaps they're affecting how you feel. If you're a woman, maybe you notice changes around the time of your menstrual cycle. If you recognize any of these and/or other causes, an appointment with your health care provider is your next step.

Sadness and frustration, even crying sometimes, aren't unusual, especially for new students and others adjusting to novel situations. The fact that these feelings are troubling you, though, is enough reason to check them out.


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