x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

At university, depression is too commonly suffered alone

It isn't shameful to ask for help, and it is shameful to not admit that you need it.

Depression hit MF hard during his freshman year at university. "I felt like I was in a tiny hole," he said, recalling that he felt unable to communicate with others. He also felt unable to fit in or, worse, to accept himself.

Now in his second year, MF seems to be just one of many students I know who have experienced depression. He is also one of the few who seems willing to talk about it.

More than a century after Freud popularised psychoanalysis, there remains a stigma in the Middle East about depression and other forms of mental illness. To many, a call for help remains a shameful thing. However, there are means of effective treatment, which have helped many people, myself included. Climbing out of the "hole"that MF feels starts by asking for help.

Most teenagers go through phases of sadness or confusion in the process of developing their personality and character. But some endure deeper, darker patterns of jumbled thoughts and emotions that linger. These may be signs of depression, and should signal to a college student that it's time to seek help. Depression needs to be taken seriously and treated effectively because without doing so, it can lead to suicidal thoughts.

One student I know who sought help and got it is a second year student. "Once I entered university, I felt like everything was all over the place," she said. "I couldn't pull myself together to study with concentration."

Part of her ordeal - and that of others - involves the pressures of shifting from high school to university life, as well as entering new social circles. And sometimes students suffering from depression may incorrectly assign the reason for it to some aspect of their studies, rather than to brain chemistry.

Some students have thought that changing their major would ease the depression. One third-year student studying electrical engineering told me he has considered changing his major to civil engineering "because I feel so much better when I study the civil subjects". But he now recognises that the problem is not the major, but depression.

Young adults are uncertain as to how to categorise their emotions and define depression. Certain indicators can indicate whether one is suffering from the latter. These include losing interest in daily activities; straying from friends; an inability to concentrate; loss of appetite; and crying for no specific reason.

There isn't a specific way to make depression go away, nor is it necessarily something "in the family" - research shows that only 3 per cent of depression cases can be traced to genetics. Methods which can help students feel better and do better in their studies include counselling, but sometimes anti-depressants are necessary.

The chemical at issue is serotonin, a hormone in the brain that controls mood. While talking to a counsellor might give momentary relief or comfort, once they step out of the therapists' office depression can return. Anti-depressants, if administered properly, adjust serotonin levels back to their normal heights.

I know personally how difficult the transition from high school to university can be. It was really hard to adapt to being an independent adult, pressured to do my best to earn good grades, and balance studying with my social life. At times, the pressure seemed unbearable.

Eventually, a doctor prescribed medication, and in time, I have learned to manage my depression. Today I once again eat normally, find joy in daily activities and I am much more active than before.

If I look at myself two years ago I would never want to go back to that stage.

It isn't shameful to ask for help. It is shameful to not admit that you need it.


Mariam Elsayed is a student of journalism at the American University of Sharjah