A guide for students with depression, by a student with depression.

BY FAITH GREGORY

Mental illness can present a unique set of challenges for students living and learning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Depression can result from many different things, such as serotonin imbalances, traumatic events and even from a lack of good ol' vitamin D. Symptoms range from lethargy and appetite problems to social isolation and suicidal thoughts. Everyone’s experience with depression is different. Oftentimes the symptoms of depression are compounded by other mental illnesses.

Here are some practical and effective ways to navigate the academy with depression.

Get a diagnosis

The most important thing you can do for your depression is to get it diagnosed. A diagnosis will open up your options for treatment, resources for surviving and, hopefully, thriving with a mental illness.

You don’t have to find a psychologist to get a diagnosis. Make an appointment with your Primary Care Physician (PCP) or hit up Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH) and let them know what’s going on with you.

Find a therapist who’s right for you

Now that you’ve got that diagnosis, it’s a good idea to find a professional to help you manage your depression. Therapists are legally obligated to keep all of your information confidential unless you plan on hurting yourself or others, so they are really great to share your problems with.

Therapists will list their specializations in their biographies, so find the specialization that matches your needs. For example, if you’re an LGBTQ person who is dealing with depression and loss of a family member, seek out a therapist who is LGBTQ or LGBTQ-friendly and specializes in depression and grief therapy. It can take a little extra digging, and you won’t always find exactly who you want, but a good therapist is one who can understand you, where you come from and where you want to go.

See a psychiatrist

People are often afraid of psychiatric medication because of its stigma, but it can save lives. Medication isn’t right for everyone, but there is a medication out there for most people who need it.

Your therapist or primary care doctor can refer you to a psychiatrist who can listen to your symptoms and suggest the appropriate medication. Dosage and brand are absolutely trial and error. It can take a while, but once you find the right meds for you, it can greatly relieve symptoms and make day-to-day life much easier.

Learning accommodations

Visit Disability Services at UMass and make an appointment. Disability Services provides learning accommodations for a variety of disabilities, including depression. They require proof of diagnosis, as outlined in their Student Intake Form. A signed doctor's note or a list of diagnoses or medications will work.

Some good accommodations for depression include excusing disability-related absences and extensions on assignments.

Talk to your friends and family

It’s really important to have a support network of people who know what you are going through. A therapist is good for working out problems, but isn’t a substitute for a friend or loved one.

Talk to your friends and family. Ask them to educate themselves about depression and how it impacts you. This is the hardest thing to do, because even family and friends can stigmatize depression. But having the hard conversations makes things easier moving forward.

Other options

Institutional health care isn’t always realistically accessible to everyone, but there are other options to help manage depression. Here are a few tricks for students without adequate healthcare or with other reasons for not using therapists or psychiatrists.

Support Groups

Online or local support groups can help by connecting you with other people who have lived with depression for a long time and who understand what you are going through. Your support network can be an invaluable tool for navigating life with a mental illness.

The Center for Women and Community at UMass Amherst offers various support groups.

Supplements

Some vitamins can help with depression symptoms. Many doctors prescribe fish oil, vitamin B complex and vitamin D to help with fatigue and mood swings.

While vitamins can be helpful, be sure to research whether the vitamins you want to take can be taken with any prescribed medicines or if they’re safe to take while pregnant.

Vitamins can alleviate symptoms, but they are not guaranteed to work consistently. There isn’t a lot of conclusive research on the effects of vitamins across the board, so exercise caution and don’t expect them to completely alleviate your symptoms.

Exercise

Cardiovascular and strength exercises can help you feel energized when you’re in a slump. Even doing small, low-energy exercises like walking can make your day a little easier and more pleasant.

Another fun way to exercise is to take a class at the Recreation Center on campus. They offer tons of classes to work with a busy schedule.

Find an exercise that works for your ability. Don’t overwork yourself in an attempt to overcome your depression. Learn your limits and work within them.

Eating right

Regular meals and a varied diet can help with energy levels and long-term health.

It’s really important to establish a regular eating schedule. You can do this by setting reminders in your phone or keeping a meal journal. Habit is key. It is very easy to forget or skip meals with depression. Being firm with your habits can go a long way to keeping you healthier and feeling better.

There's an app for that

There are apps that can help you stay on track with things like eating and taking medications, with an eye toward recovery.

Recovery Record (Android, iPhone): Logs meals, emotions and thoughts. Gives reminders to log meals and has inspirational quotes and cute animal pictures every time you log a meal.

Rise Up and Recover (iPhone): Logs meals and emotions. Can export as a PDF, password protected and helps track triggers of eating problems.

Jourvie (Android, iPhone): Tracks food, focuses on feelings about meals, comes with inspirational quotes and reminders to log meals. Has a colorful layout and logs can be printed out.

Resources

Depression hurts, but good resources can alleviate some of the pain. Here is a list of resources that can help you get started learning to live with depression.

Email Faith at fvgregory@umass.edu or follow them on Twitter @FVGrego.

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