Depression and the Sorrow of Not Graduating

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

I am not referring here to how sad it is when students do not graduate though that is also very true. What I am referring to is the sorrow that prevents graduation. Over the years I have dealt with a great many students who were simply depressed, sad, stressed –maybe clinically and chronically and maybe as a result of a situation affecting them at the moment.

We are finding now that adolescence for many biological reasons is a time of high emotional vulnerability. Personal life, and sometimes physical issues, can result in emotional stress and distress—these are sometimes difficult to confront because they make one feel out of place or incapable of coping, which can be demeaning.  So we often deny the pain we’re feeling, and then it pops up in a new form.  Sadness over a breakup can pop up as overeating.  Stress about a family matter may lead to drinking too much.  Concern about appearance can show up as exercising to excess or binge eating.  Or there may be a neurobehavioral issue, which shows up as attention deficit disorder (ADD) or predisposes one to addictive behavior or depression.  The reality is sixty-seven percent of students with depression or anxiety do not report it or ask for help.

Social worker-turned-successful-entrepreneur Terrie Williams writes of her own depression and that of many well-known figures in her book Black Pain.  She notes that persons of color or from cultures outside the U.S. are more inclined to suppress these issues, which does not serve us well in the long term.  I have known students who wanted therapy, but feared that if their parents found out, it would be taken as a sign of weakness, or there would be concern that family dirty laundry was being aired among strangers.

Depression is now accepted as a real health issue with physical as well as psychological components and manifestations.  We speak of being depressed when we are sad or down.  But often we are walking around in a depressed state without knowing what it is.  Causes can be bio-physical or situational.  If you feel overwhelmed, want to do nothing but sleep, are avoiding others, abusing drugs or alcohol, eating nothing or too much, or crying at the drop of a hat, then you may be suffering from depression.

Some circumstances in college can trigger situational depression: homesickness, missing old friends, not making new friends fast enough, too much work to do, concerns about money, feeling alone in your confusion, starting a new relationship or ending an old one, and worry about your family. Some may be years of accumulated self-hatred coming from a life of poverty or exposure to racism or sexism or homophobia.  It is not uncommon to be dealing with several of these at one time, when any one can be a bear all by itself.

Campuses offer facilities and resources to deal with these issues, and some report that their counselors and professional staff have seen as many as half of the student body.  Campus resources can range from full medical teams to psychiatrists or social workers, all trained to deal with various kinds of physical, psychological, and emotional issues, both short and long term.  Some resources may be able to offer medication and others therapy, some may be able to do both.  Some schools have ties to other schools or medical facilities where even more extensive resources are provided. It’s a sign of a desire to survive and thrive that a student seeks help.

Seeking help is better than self-medicating.  One of the biggest problems on campuses these days is the use and abuse of prescription drugs to manage mood and productivity.  The risk is high for addiction and permanent damage to both physical and mental health.  While headlines report student deaths, they seldom report the cases of long-term damage from drug use, in which abusers permanently harm themselves, and in many cases harm others.

But also an impact is that students do not graduate. I have known students who in depression went into hiding and did not go to classes or went on bulimic binges or were too drunk to take exams or were in the infirmary dealing with some side effect of depressive self-destructive behavior. They have sabotaged their academic careers often fearing both success and failure. They have created a self-fulfilling prophecy that affirms what they believe about themselves – that they are not worthy. They may act in depressive anger directed at family who have pushed them along when they did not feel internally that they were smart enough or good enough whatever the evidence to the contrary. They may have feared the next step of life after graduation where again they would be put to the test in a new environment of work or graduate school. I have seen students cheat in the second semester of senior year or fail to complete requirements like a final thesis. This is self-destruction—and depression– at work.

We need to be sure that faculty and staff are alert to the signs of student depression in all its forms. We need to make sure resources are not stigmatized and that confidentiality is understood to be complete. We need to realize that students are among the best at wearing the mask that says all is OK when it is not.  We want to avoid the sorrow of not graduating.

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