Skip to:Main Content

Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University
Washington and Lee University Campus Image

Causes, Signs and Symptoms

For each person, there is a complex, individual pattern of factors that work together to either allow or prevent depression at any given time. These include:

  1. External events: 
    • This refers to factors in the development of depression that are outside ourselves, occurring within the scope of everyday life, and are therefore not directly related to genetics, brain functioning or medical illnesses. 
    • It is the interplay between these events and the individual’s reaction to them that can lead to the development of depression.
  2. Genetics/Family History: 
    • Recent research has found that a vulnerability to depressive illnesses can be inherited, although no one is certain to become depressed. 
    • It is likely that this predisposition for depression comes from a combination of genes rather than one single gene.
  3. Physiological or biochemical factors. Since the brain controls the basic functions of our bodies, movements, thoughts, and emotions, researchers of clinical depression study different aspects of brain functioning, including the function of neurotransmitters within neurons, hormones, and the structures of the limbic system. 
  4. Some medical conditions and medications can cause symptoms similar to those of depression. These include epilepsy, diabetes, thyroid problems, stroke, brain trauma, Parkinson’s disease, and pituitary gland problems. 
  5. Some people with depression may try to numb their feelings by “self-medicating” with alcohol, while alcohol itself is a depressant and therefore can cause depression.

What can trigger an episode of depression in a college student?

Many factors from my high school career, as well as the pressure that I felt at W&L
to perform academically and conform socially. Mainly the social interactions in which alcohol
was involved and I was engaging in unfamiliar activities caused me to feel inadequate.” –A W&L Student
  • Many students find it difficult to adjust to the new environment. 
  • Academic and social pressures are extremely prevalent at W&L and can cause students to feel inadequate in those realms. 
  • Doing poorly in school in general or failing a class. 
  • Losing a significant relationship. 
  • Not getting into the fraternity or sorority of choice. 
  • Perfectionism

Common Signs and Symptoms of Depression

“When I feel really depressed, I feel overwhelming sadness. I cry a lot. Often, it is gut-wrenching,
gasping sobs that leave me feeling exhausted and ill. Sometimes, the crying is a release.
Most of the time, the crying makes me feel more alone. I think depression feeds on itself.
I find that if I experience one bad thing, all the bad things that have happened to me in
the past come flooding back.”
–W&L Student 

  • Feeling deeply sad or empty

“I felt as though everything seemed hopeless. I did not find joy in my normal everyday
activities. Each day was a struggle to get through without mentally and emotionally breaking down.” –W&L Student 

  • Finding little or no pleasure or interest in usual activities

“Sometimes, I wonder why I force myself to get up everyday and go to school. What is the point?
Even when I am able to keep doing the activities that I am expected to do, I still wonder
what motivates me. I guess I just do them because they are a function of living.
I am not ready for the alternative.”
–W&L Student 

  • A change in appetite and weight gain or loss 
  • Changes in sleep patterns 
  • Restlessness or decreased activity that is noticeable to others 
  • Loss of energy or feeling tired all the time

“The reality of depression was rapidly setting in, and it was quite unsettling. I allowed myself
to sink into it, wallowing in self-pity. It was easy to feel sorry for myself because I felt so alone
in this terrible illness. I didn’t make any effort to battle the illness because capitulating came so easily.
It took no effort to give in, but it required all of my strength to wage war against depression.”
–W&L Student 

  • Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt 
  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking, or making decisions 
  • Repeated thoughts of death or suicide 
  • Physical symptoms that don’t seem to go away with treatment 
  • Difficulty managing a chronic illness 
  • Specific experience of: 
  • Digestive problems, headache or backache, vague aches and pains like joint muscle pains, chest pains, dizziness 
  • Comments by others about your mood or attitude 
  • General anxiety 
  • Family history of depression 
  • Experience of these symptoms for more than two weeks 
  • The feeling that your everyday functioning is suffering because of these problems

What to do if you are concerned a student may be depressed or suicidal:

  • Rather than taking a problem-solving approach, listen and be empathetic.
  • Ask openly if the student is contemplating suicide. Mentioning suicide won’t put the idea in his/her head and it won’t cause him/her to act upon it. Asking this question might allow the student to express feelings s/he has been dealing with.
  • If you think a student is at risk of harming himself, don’t leave him alone.
  • If a student acknowledges suicidal ideation, don’t act shocked or ask “why;” this could simply make the student defensive.
  • Don’t make promises not to tell anyone about what the student has shared. It is more important to tell someone on campus who can help intervene than to keep your promise and let the student possibly kill himself. Suicide is a preventable event. Therapy and/or medication can help.

Where to Get Help