While working in a pharmacy over Winter Break, I encountered customers with every sort of medical need imaginable, from high blood pressure to mysterious facial rashes. One day a customer came to the pharmacy desk and said she wanted to refill a prescription. I asked her what medication she needed refilled, and after inhaling deeply and looking around cautiously on either side of her, she leaned in and whispered in a voice that was barely audible, "Prozac."
With the exception of birth control pills, depression medications were the only other prescriptions customers seemed embarrassed to need. However, according to Sarah Lyons, president of Students for Mental Health Awareness, depression is not uncommon.
"Depression is a persisting feeling of extreme sadness, loss of interest in activities that used to be fun, more withdrawn from friends, wanting to sleep all the time, or not sleeping at all," Lyons said.
According to Lenny Carter, Student Health assistant director of Counseling and Psychological Services, depression is an illness that constitutes a cluster of symptoms. These symptoms include a depressed mood, inability to enjoy activities that used to be pleasurable, fatigue, change in sleep and appetite, thoughts about death, feelings of excessive guilt or worthlessness, and indecisiveness.
"It's normal to be in a funk for a few days, but if you're down and stay down for a few weeks that could be more serious," Carter said.
There are varying degrees of depression. A depressed person who is still able to maintain friendships and good grades is different from a depressed person who cannot function normally. The person's ability to function, as well as the duration of the depression, determines the seriousness of the depression.
"Some people can be depressed and still get all A's, but for others, it's like their brains are stuck in mud," Carter said.
Both Carter and Lyons believe depression is a serious matter and it is more prevalent than people may think.
According to the American College Health Association's National College Health Assessment in 2005, 46 percent of the sample of 54,111 students reported at least one instance in the past year of being unable to function because of depression. From the same sample, 10 percent reported having seriously considered suicide within the past year. When applied to the University population, this represents about 275 suicide attempts.
"It's really a serious public health issue," Carter said. "There is a lot we don't understand about the link between depression and suicide."
According to data gathered during 2005 and 2006 by Counseling and Psychological Services, depressive disorders represented one-third of all new cases seen through CAPS, and one half of these were cases of major depression, the most serious form of depressive disorders.
Lilly Greenwood, vice president of the Nursing Student Council, which helped organize a luncheon last semester to raise depression awareness, recommends going to CAPS if someone believes he or she may be depressed.
"If you're scared to go, tell a friend and get someone to support you," she said.
If a friend seems depressed, ask him or her about it and listen, Greenwood added.
"Show that you care and are supportive of the situation," she said.
Carter said he believes CAPS is a great service for University students, unlike some treatment options, CAPS has no financial stake in a patient's diagnosis.
In theory,CAPS's financial independence insures counselors' only motive is the well-being of the students.
In general, people seem willing to come to CAPS to get help, but they are less willing to let others know they are being seen for a depressive disorder, Carter said. Often students are ashamed to be seen in the waiting room, he added.
"This is unfortunate, because we don't apply this to medical problems," Carter said. "They don't have the same level of stigma in our society."
Lyons agrees that there is a stigma surrounding depression, making it difficult for students to seek the help they may need.
"Among a community like U.Va., it can be difficult to say you are dealing with some problems," Lyons said. "It can be scary struggling with psychological issues."
Lyons added that Students for Mental Health Awareness seeks to inform students that it is good to seek help, and that depression does not make someone abnormal.
Especially at a competitive school like the University, "a lot of us tend to be perfectionists and it is difficult and embarrassing to admit that we need help," Lyons said.
Students who think that they, or someone they know, might be struggling with a depressive disorder are encouraged to set up an appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services by calling 924-5556.
In emergencies, in addition to calling 911, students can call 1-800-SUICIDE or the Crisis Line of Central Virginia at 434-947-HELP to get help.