Of all psychologically related conditions experienced by Bowdoin students, depression, whether occasional, mild, persistent, or severe, is easily the most prevalent. Its effects can penetrate to the heart of a student's life, subtly or profoundly diminishing his or her ability to function academically and socially while eroding self-confidence and motivation. Depression also possesses an insidious ability to conceal itself behind an acrid smokescreen of guilt and self-blame.
Yet, despite its debilitating manifestations, depression can also be understood as a self-corrective measure engineered by the psyche...a definitive "call from the soul" which suggests (or demands) the need for realigning, rebalancing, or redirecting an individual's vital energies toward a trajectory of renewed meaning and purpose.
In any event, a useful first step in dealing with depression (one's own or that of a friend, partner, or relative) is to take the time to understand what it is, what it does, and how it can be treated. The following overview by Bowdoin psychologist Bernie Hershberger and subsequently listed internet links are intended to provide this kind of information. We have also included a link to the Goldberg Depression Inventory (provided below), a self-assessment device that can be completed and scored on the web in a few minutes. If the results of this instrument or any information provided through this page leads you to suspect that depression may be an issue for you, we strongly suggest setting up an appointment for further consultation with any of the experienced counselors available at the Counseling Service at Bowdoin College. See the sections Your Basic Q & A and Services for Students in this web site for detailed information about our services and the scheduling of appointments.
Bowdoin Student Experiences with Depression
The following information about depression was taken from excerpts of a daylong retreat of Bowdoin students who shared their struggles with depression. Their descriptions and characterizations perhaps most clearly explain what happens to people when they get depressed and how to work with this condition, which affects mind, body, emotions, and spirit. A debt of gratitude is owed to the individuals who offered their honest experience:
- feeling down
- a severe state of sadness
- a weight
- a distorted view of reality
- a dark cloud descending making it difficult to breathe
- a difficult and painful call to the self
When I am depressed my body is
- lacking any vitality
When depressed my emotions are
- always sad
- powerful and sad
- "roller-coaster like"
When depressed my thoughts are
The thing I fear most about depression is
- that it won't end end
- not being able to take care of myself
- not being able to function
- that it will do lasting damage to important relationships
- losing my identity
If these descriptions correspond with your own experience or someone you care about, please read on. Also you might want to complete a Goldberg depression inventory to assess your current level of depression. It is important to understand that depression can be relieved through a combination of steps and strategies. Bowdoin students identified the following factors as helpful to them in dealing with depression:
- Having friends who understand/social support*
- Talking with a counselor or therapist*
- Family support
- Knowledge of what depression is*
- Focusing on activities and work
- Finding meaning in the emotions
*These strategies will be elaborated upon in the following sections.
Knowledge about Depression
Many people are relieved to know that what they are experiencing is a condition which has a name and diagnosis. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association describes four types of depression. Depression can be mild, moderate, or severe and can be a recent phenomenon or a reality that has been experienced for most of one's life. Depression is a common ailment and it is estimated that 1 of every 5 adults will experience depression at some point in their life. Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression, although this statistic may be distorted in that men, due to cultural conditioning, may be less willing than women to report themselves as depressed and may also be more prone to "mask" depression by engaging in addictive behaviors.
As for etiology (origin), there appears to be a positive correlation between depression in one's family and likelihood of experiencing depression in one's own life. In addition to a possible genetic predisposition toward depression, many people become vulnerable to depression after significant losses, sustained psychological stress, severe medical illnesses, and for women-following the birth of a child. The interaction between both hereditary and psychological stress often occurs as depression takes hold.
Depression is differentiated from the "blues" by virtue of its intensity, duration, pervasiveness, and seriousness. The "blues" tend to pass after a day or more whereas depression, once entrenched, often takes weeks or months to subside. People who are depressed often feel impaired in school, work, and social spheres. If depression worsens, it can create a state of emotional paralysis in which one can feel overwhelmed by the prospect of performing even the simplest activities. Fortunately, depression is highly treatable and nearly 80% of people, including those with severe depression, can regain their motivation and connection to life.
Talking with a Therapist
When people seek help for depression they often end-up working with a counselor or therapist. The stigma attached to seeking such help is alive and well in our culture, even though significant strides have been made in normalizing the idea of receiving counseling when depressed. Some of the well-known people who have spoken publicly about their depression and treatment include: Princess Diana, Tipper Gore, Kitty Dukakis, Mike Wallace, David Frost, James Taylor, etc.
Meeting with a counselor can help to clarify a diagnosis of depression, offer education about signs and symptoms of the condition, validate how difficult it can be to function under the weight of the disorder, and most importantly provide steps to recovery. A therapist is both consultant and coach in the process of helping an individual heal from depression. Their job is to empower a client to move toward goals at an appropriate, individualized pace. Individuals in therapy are assisted in recovering their own sense of control and responsibility for resolving the depression as soon as possible. Therapy tends to be longer when severe psychological losses or stresses have contributed to the depression and briefer when the depression arises more strictly from a biological predisposition or pattern.
While certain types of therapeutic approaches (i.e. cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, and mindfulness based cognitive therapy) tend to be more highly researched and therefore possibly more effective with depression, many therapists are well trained and capable of helping with this condition. If you are in a community where counseling services are not readily available, it is useful to ask someone you know (e.g. friend, physician, nurse, professor) to recommend someone to you. Some therapists may be willing to have an initial phone interview or to meet in person for an initial session to see how things click. Asking a counselor or therapist about his or her experience and interest in working with someone with depression is good beginning question.
On campus, the Counseling Service offers highly experienced counselors who can support students through the process of assessment and treatment of depression. Appointments can be scheduled at 725-3145 around your schedule.
Depression is highly responsive to pharmacological treatment and current medications are both safer and have fewer side effects than older varieties of medication. A physician, nurse practitioner, or physician's assistant may prescribe medication. Psychiatrists, medical doctors who specialize in mental health, are typically the doctor of first choice to evaluate and prescribe.
Your physician will typically interview you in depth about family history, symptoms, physical health, stresses, etc. before discussing whether medication is warranted. If your doctor decides that depression is a problem, he or she will review medications and options with you. The physician will work collaboratively with you to make a decision about the right course of action. If you decide to start a medication, the doctor will explain any possible side effects and encourage you to contact him or her with questions if they arise in-between appointments.
Bowdoin College is fortunate to have two excellent psychiatrists available on campus to meet with students dealing with depression. Appointments can be made by referral through a counselor in the Counseling Service. The psychiatrist and counselor will work closely together to support your recovery process. Other highly qualified psychiatrists practice in the Brunswick area and, should a student so desire, Counseling Center staff can arrange an off-campus referral to one of these psychiatrists.
The support of friends and family is highly important in dealing with and resolving depression. Many people, as they become depressed, tend to isolate themselves from others. This typically occurs because the person feels unmotivated, self-conscious, and lacking in confidence. Thus a depressed individual often grows reclusive and distant from the very support which would help him/her begin to resolve the problem.
Friends and family members need first to learn about the symptoms of depression in order to recognize them and to actively assist the person who is depressed. A depressed student may need someone to help them get "jump started" so that they don't remain in a paralyzed state. Ideally, both the depressed person and their support group will reach out to one another. Some students find that, in addition to family and friends, campus and/or community groups are helpful to connect with when depressed.
In closing, we want to emphasize that depression responds successfully to treatment and that effective treatment resources are available on the Bowdoin campus. No one deserves to suffer from depression and no one is depressed because they are lazy, bad, or lacking in willpower. Recovery begins with an understanding of the realities of depression. Once recognized, resources such as therapy, medication, and social support can be brought to bear on the problem.
Please contact the Counseling Service at 725-3145 if you have questions or concerns about your experiences or those of another. We are here to help. In addition, please feel free to read through more complete information about our services and how to make an appointment on this web site.