Ask An Expert / College

I think my daughter, a college student, is depressed, but she says she’s fine. What do you recommend?

Learn the symptoms and be a good listener

Jill M. Emanuele, PhD
Jill Emanuele, PhD

Senior Director, Mood Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

I think my daughter, who's away at college, is depressed. She says all is fine but I'm concerned. What do you recommend?

Going to college can be a huge transition for kids, as they’re leaving home and taking on a number of new responsibilities all at once. For many it can be overwhelming, leaving them vulnerable to mental health disorders. In fact, one in four college students suffer from a mental health disorder, including depression. We’ve seen a trend in depression increasing in college-age students, too. So it’s great that you’re paying attention.

The first thing you can do is learn the signs of depression so you know what you’re looking for. This is important because sometimes people seem depressed, but they actually aren’t. For example, a person might feel really down for a few days, often due to a stressor of some kind, but then feel better. That isn’t depression. Untreated depression is more persistent, and it interferes with functioning.

Symptoms of depression can include sadness, crying more often, dropping grades, trouble concentrating, losing interest in things she enjoyed in the past, and changes in eating or sleeping habits. Isolating herself from others is often a red flag for college students particularly, because they’re generally so social. Irritability and angry outbursts can be symptoms as well, even though people don’t usually associate them with depression. Suicidal statements are also a sign and an indication that a person could be in imminent danger, so if this is the case, we recommend an emergency evaluation in an ER to ensure safety.

Once you know the things to be on the look out for in regard to signs of depression, there are several things you can do to help. The first is to be a good listener. Be there for her when she tells you she is stressed and overwhelmed. Notice if she’s describing any of the symptoms above. Pay attention to what she’s not saying, too. Is she mentioning friends or social activities? If she’s not, that could be a sign that something is wrong.

Make an effort to validate whatever she’s saying. You want to show that you understand and respect what she’s saying even if you don’t necessarily agree with it. Validating her will encourage her to start being more open with you, because she’ll see you as a source of support rather than a source of criticism or judgment.

If your daughter is depressed, there are counseling centers at colleges that provide mental health treatment to students and can often connect them with mental health professionals in the community, too. You can’t make your daughter go to the counseling center if she doesn’t want to, but you can still explore what opportunities there are for help. You can call the counseling center and ask about the kinds of services available, how to pay for services, and if it’s covered through health insurance. A lot of college counseling centers are free to their students. Some counseling centers even let parents make the appointment, but you should know that unless your daughter signs a release, you won’t have access to any health information.

You can share whatever information you find with your daughter so that she knows about the resources that are there for her. Then you need to be patient if she doesn’t seek help right away. The more you tell her to go when she isn’t ready, the more she may resist. It may take a while, but it’s important that getting help be her own decision because otherwise she isn’t going to be committed to it.

You can also encourage your daughter to get involved in extracurricular activities at her college. One of the ways we treat depression, called “behavioral activation”, goes against the inclination of depressed people to hide and isolate themselves. Instead, we strongly encourage them to participate in activities as participation in the activities, although sometimes hard for a depressed person, eventually helps to improve their mood and energy level.

Finally, if you have an opportunity and your daughter is open to it, visit her when you can. You are the one who knows your child best, and you may be able to pick up signs that she is struggling much more quickly than the newer people in her life at school. Showing her that you’re there for her can mean a lot.