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Offering a Light to a Friend in the Dark

Mental Health Experts Offer Advice for Supporting Students Struggling with Depression, Anxiety

By Maggie Haslam

Illustration of two women leaning on each other

Major transitions like going to college can result in depression, anxiety and other mental health struggles. UMD experts offer ways for faculty, staff and students to support friends in need.

Illustration from iStock

Your roommate is suddenly sleeping a lot. A friend has disappeared on text. One of your students is regularly missing class. Is it the frenzy of a new semester catching up with them—or something more?

Signs of depression or anxiety in a student, classmate or friend aren’t always easy to recognize and it can feel daunting to ask, “Are you OK?” But depression and anxiety are particularly common during big life transitions like going to college, said Amy Morgan, an assistant professor of family science who teaches the course, “U SAD? Coping with Stress, Anxiety, and Depression.”

“For people who haven’t experienced it before, it can often look like laziness or lack of motivation,” she said. “There’s this judgment you can self-impose: ‘I just need to get up and do something.’ One of the things that depression does is trick people to not do those things.”

A 2023 survey of 96,000 college students in the U.S. and abroad for the annual Healthy Minds Study found that 44% reported symptoms of depression and 27% reported anxiety disorders during the 2021-22 academic year. Over the past three years, the university’s Counseling Center has received nearly 100 calls annually on its “warmlines” from concerned faculty, staff and parents seeking help for UMD students.

Depression and anxiety, said center Director Chetan Joshi, can be circumstantial and temporary. But if someone who’s normally outgoing suddenly withdraws socially, has trouble sleeping or concentrating, expresses excessive worries or seems hopeless for several weeks—or if their sadness is impacting their ability to function—it’s a clear sign they need additional support.

“A good way to think about this is, what is this person’s baseline and is their current functioning and behavior in keeping with that baseline?” he said. “For example, someone who is academically motivated and attending all classes might suddenly start to struggle in this area.”

While professional treatment can help people manage depression and anxiety, there are things that friends, roommates and teachers can do, said Joshi, to offer support. Below, UMD mental health experts share ways to help when a student is struggling:

Name what you’ve noticed. “Simply stating, ‘I notice you’re not going out as much and I’m worried about you,’ frames it from a nonjudgmental place,” Morgan said.

Listen. “Sometimes we don't feel we are helping unless we are actively giving advice,” said Adam Younoszai, assistant director of the University Health Center and director of behavioral services. “But just listening and giving someone time to express themselves is helpful.”

Be a broken record. When it comes to reaching a struggling friend, Morgan said repetition is key, whether it’s simply checking in, expressing your concern, offering to help them set up a counseling appointment, or just getting them engaged in an activity. “If you’re a really good friend, it could just be saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to the gym today. You have no choice.’ Be that rally person.”

Normalize it. Depression has the ability to trick people into thinking they are alone in their feelings and there is something wrong with them, said Morgan. Empathizing and validating the person’s feelings, even sharing your own experience, said family science Professor Mariana Falconier, can make people feel less isolated. “It signals that you’re there for them and that they are not the only ones feeling this way,” said Falconier.

Encourage them to get help. If repeated efforts to coax a friend to talk or leave their room or apartment doesn’t work, or if their symptoms worsen, suggest that they seek help from counseling services on campus or another health care professional, said Younoszai. If they vocalize thoughts of suicide, call the suicide hotline number (988) or 911 or take them to the nearest ER.

Go easy on yourself. Support, care and advocacy for a friend or roommate is a wonderful thing to do, said Morgan, but ultimately what someone decides is up to them. “It is not your responsibility to take care of another person fully. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work, it isn’t your fault.”

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