dark days

As a Colby freshman, Michael Farrell '00 had excellent grades, wonderful friends and a loving and supportive family. He was active in theater, sang in music groups, went to parties and was known around campus. Farrell excelled in what many would call the best four years of his life.

And every morning he woke up feeling like his best friend had just died.

Farrell couldn't understand why he felt worse every day, despite having everything going for him. "I have no alcoholic father. I have no abusive mother," he said. "So there was this guilt complex every time I felt horrible." The guilt added to his confusion and growing sense of hopelessness. If he wasn't happy then--with a 3.7 GPA, great friends and activities and a college he loved--when would he ever be happy? He turned to a Colby counselor at the Health Center to discuss a developing inferiority complex, but by late spring Farrell was having suicidal thoughts.

Colby students are judged to be among the happiest college students around. It's not just an anecdote, either--more than 90 percent of participants in Associate Professor of Economics Michael Donihue '79's 2000 Colby Student Lifestyle Survey said they were very happy, mostly happy or indifferent to their social and academic lives. For this majority, college includes the usual highs and lows of young adulthood. "Developmentally this is a time of huge transitions, and kids do a lot of soul searching," said Patti Newmen, director of counseling services. But for a smaller population, college is darkened by a socially isolating mental disorder--depression.

The symptoms of depression vary with individuals. A depressed student may feel sad or empty inside. He may lose interest in hobbies or friends or have difficulty concentrating. She might have trouble sleeping or become irritable. "It's not just the people who are necessarily sleeping 20 hours a day and withdrawing from social activities," said Farrell. "There are people who just keep up appearances in the best way."

Newmen often sees students who say, "Anyone looking at my life would say I have a great life. So, why am I so miserable?" That incongruity causes more stress, she said.

The causes of depression are complex, too. Family history and psychological make-up can make an individual vulnerable. Stress from academic demands, adjustment to college social life or sexual orientation, for example, can contribute. An episode may be tied to a situation, like a sick parent, or can occur after a specific event, such as a death in the family. But sometimes depression occurs suddenly and for no apparent reason.

In 2001-02 the Colby Health Center saw 77 students for medical treatment of depression, and counseling services saw more than 150 students for symptoms of depression. While the 2001-02 numbers included a surge after 9/11, Melanie Thompson, M.D., medical director of health services, says the number has been rising since she arrived at Colby nine years ago. She suggests two reasons--general practitioners, like her, are better able to diagnose depression, and the rate of incidence may be rising.

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