Disclosure: Logan Cooper is a friend of the author.
Logan Cooper is talking as he sits on a desk crowded with turntables, mics and a mixing board inside KCPR, Cal Poly’s radio station. Cooper is a disc jockey at the station, and even as he answers questions from a reporter, he’s managing an hour-long block of Joy Division songs. He’s not taking requests tonight; he can speak without interruption.
Cooper isn’t shy about talking. He’s the kind of person who regularly finds himself making conversation with new people. Ordering food is rarely a simple transaction — employees are cheerfully asked what their favorite menu items are.
Cooper, an ethnic studies junior, is even great at talking about his struggles with depression. At least now he is. But while talking was what lifted Cooper’s depression, it took him a while to find the right way and the right person to talk to.
For reasons such as academic pressures, changing friend groups, time away from family and grappling with career goals, college is a time where people are particularly susceptible to experiencing depression. Cal Poly’s own annual “Healthy Minds” survey found that 16 percent of students on campus were experiencing some form of depression.
According to a report compiled by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health and based on data provided by 132 universities, 16.2 percent of students have attended counseling for mental health concerns after starting college. Results at Cal Poly were on par at 16.6 percent.
The same report found that approximately 13 percent of students were prescribed medication for mental health concerns after starting college. The results are the same at Cal Poly.
Unlike physical conditions, most mental health concerns begin at a young age. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health have found that 3/4 of mental disorders begin by age 24.
Furthermore, counseling centers have seen an increase in students seeking help for depression in the past five to 10 years, said Hannah Roberts, the outreach coordinator at Cal Poly’s counseling center. It’s difficult to determine whether this is because of greater awareness and diagnosis or an actual increase in depression. Reduced stigma for those seeking therapy might also be a factor in increased demand, Roberts said.
Cooper’s struggles with depression started with increasing academic challenges.
“The schoolwork got harder, and I was not prepared for it mentally,” Cooper said. “I tanked my first engineering class, just completely failed it.”
Cooper entered Cal Poly as a mechanical engineer. He found the academics of his first year manageable, but in his second year, his classes became more difficult, and he received failing grades in some courses.
According to psychology professor Charles Slem, who has done research about depression in college students, failing to meet minimum academic standards is one of the primary triggers of depression in students.
The stresses of the academic world differ from those of the working world, Slem said. The constant succession of deadlines and exams mean there are numerous opportunities for grade-crippling failure in one quarter.
“It’s estimated that over 3/4 of students in the U.S., over the course of an academic year, are going to feel some symptoms of depression, because there are so many exams, so many papers, so many opportunities to screw up,” Slem said.
Another common trigger of depression in students is when they find themselves in the wrong major or find their career goals changing, Slem said. Cooper experienced this firsthand.
“I felt kind of trapped in the engineering world, and that wasn’t really an environment I wanted to be in,” Cooper said.
Through his time at Cal Poly, Cooper’s interests began to migrate toward humanitarian and social justice issues. He felt engineering didn’t directly correlate to the kind of work he wanted to be doing.
“I had to tell myself, ‘I can do humanitarian work with this,’” Cooper said.
There were also social pressures. Cooper faced opposition from his parents about changing his major.
“It felt like I didn’t have a lot of choice over what was going on in my life,” Cooper said. “I didn’t have a very open, honest dialogue with them, where I had a stake, where I could have a say at the table.”
Cooper was also troubled by relationships, both from before college and during his time at Cal Poly. Lingering feelings about an ex-girlfriend from home led to a breakup with Cooper’s college girlfriend, fueling feelings of guilt.
“It felt like I didn’t have a lot of choice over what was going on in my life,” ethnic studies junior Logan Cooper said. “I didn’t have a very open, honest dialogue with them, where I had a stake, where I could have a say at the table.”
The loss of a student’s social support network when making the move to college is another common factor in student depression, Slem said. Freshmen have to adjust to university life away from their friends and parents.
According to a study conducted by Cal Poly’s psychology department, 40 percent of freshmen report having felt homesick during their first year, but that the feeling went away after Thanksgiving break. But for 25 percent of freshman, the feeling lingers on, Slem said.
Depression occurs when basic psychological processes get derailed, Slem said. Examples of some of these psychological processes include the way people learn, or a set of beliefs that inform their thinking. If two students take a test and do poorly, but only one becomes depressed, the depression could stem from a set of beliefs that cause that person to see failure as a measure of self-worth, Slem said.
Other times, there does not appear to be any reason for a person’s depression. This can be an indicator that the person is experiencing a biological imbalance, Slem said. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin may have stopped being produced at the proper level.
Depression is a part of the human condition, Slem said. It plays an adaptive role in helping people respond to situations in daily life, and when the situation improves, the feeling lifts. This normal emotional response is referred to as a mild depression.
When depression goes beyond its adaptive role, it is referred to as a major depression.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a major depression occurs when a person experiences a loss of pleasure in daily life for at least two weeks, and also exhibits other specific symptoms.
One such symptom is if a person experiences feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt. Significant changes in eating and sleeping habits are also a key indicator.
Though college students are prone to depression, some aspects of their environment can be beneficial.
Students have a support network of peers on campus, as well as resources such as the counseling center, Roberts said. Isolation can contribute to depression, but students don’t usually live alone, so they can look to roommates and friends for support. Young people are also more willing to try things like therapy, and are able to look toward a better future, Roberts said.
After graduation, entering the working world or graduate school can be a source of anxiety, Slem said.
Cal Poly’s Counseling Services offers options for medication and counseling, Roberts said. There is no set course of treatment prescribed by Counseling Services. Instead, counselors work with students to determine what the best course of action is.
Roberts said because Counseling Services serves such a large population, the center generally focuses on stabilizing the students in the short term so they can be successful at Cal Poly. If students need additional help, they can be referred to a professional in the community. Counseling Services is completely confidential and free for students.
Depression is usually treated through therapy, medication or a combination thereof, Roberts said.
For Cooper, the solution came through talking with therapists at Cal Poly’s counseling center. But these weren’t the first people he tried to speak to.
Cooper had gone to his new friends at Cal Poly to talk about what he was going through, and found that many of them were experiencing similar issues.
“I didn’t feel like I had a place to turn to,” Cooper said. “People saw me as a person to be a support for them, but they didn’t really reciprocate all the time.”
While continuing to struggle with depression during his sophomore year at Cal Poly, Cooper found a friend who encouraged him to go to Counseling Services. At first, Cooper was skeptical it would help.
“I was going in thinking, ‘I already know everything about me. If I do have a problem, I don’t know if it can be solved. I’m just broken,’” Cooper said.
After Cooper began attending therapy sessions, his attitude changed. Finding therapists who were supportive and non-judgmental allowed Cooper to recover from his depression.
“It ended up being really helpful,” he said. “I ended up using their free six-week service.”
Cooper said counselors were there to listen and walk him through the conflicts that were creating his negative emotions. Counselors also spoke with Cooper about his academics. Cooper was not prescribed any medication.
“A lot of it was centered around, ‘How can I feel more empowered about my schoolwork?’” Cooper said.
Ultimately, these conversations were instrumental in his choice to change majors. Counselors supported Cooper’s choices and helped him decide what major was right for him.
“It was someone telling me, ‘Those are OK options, it’s not going to be the end of the world,’” Cooper said.
Cooper no longer seeks treatment for depression. He said the time at counseling services helped him “step back from the edge,” and he can now take care of himself and use his friends as a support structure.
It’s important to be open and non-judgmental when talking to a friend, Roberts said. Students shouldn’t feel that they have to — or are able to — fix their friends’ problems, but being there to listen and support them is valuable, Roberts said.
For Cooper, treatment meant talking — talking to someone who could help.