Three-time Ironman.

Nine-time Tough Mudder competitor.

23-year-old software engineer in Silicon Valley.

At first glance you would never know that recent Cal Poly graduate John Jae Woo Lee battled with chronic depression during college. Just one year after graduation, he is competing in the World’s Toughest Mudder Competition: a 24-hour race where competitors run as many laps as they can. The funds he is raising through his GoFundMe campaign will go to the Hope for Depression Foundation.

Lee is only one of an increasing number of students who struggled to seek treatment for depression in college. According to Cal Poly Campus Health and Wellbeing, two-thirds of people suffering from depression do not seek treatment at all. And for those who do not seek treatment for severe depression, the suicide rate is as high as 15 percent. Though Cal Poly and other universities offer resources to help cope with depression, students like Lee are often hesitant to seek treatment.

“The hardest part for someone going through it is to open up,” Lee said. “I think that’s because of all the social stigmas. When I had depression I thought that if I opened up I would feel insecure and embarrassed — but I realized that that’s probably the worst thing that you can do. What you really need to do is reach out to others and get that unconditional help.”

As a straight-A student and athlete throughout high school, Lee was admitted to Cal Poly’s computer engineering program in 2010. That same year, he suffered from a severe concussion after getting hit in the back of the head during a flag football game.

After the concussion, he became very withdrawn and experienced regular anxiety attacks and night sweats. People close to him pointed out dramatic personality changes, and encouraged him to seek help. After visiting the Health Center for screenings, Lee was diagnosed with Dysthymia — otherwise known as chronic depression.

Leaving stigmas behind

Nationally, 40 percent of college students seek help from a counselor, therapist or other resource for concerns about depression, according to Campus Health and Wellbeing.

At Cal Poly, 15 percent of students who went into Peers Understanding Listening Supporting Education (PULSE) for consultations presented feelings of diagnosable depression, co-coordinator of the Mental Health Team at PULSE Ryker Wall said.


Graphic by Celina Oseguera

When people seek treatment, it more than often works. More than 80 percent of all people with clinical depression who receive proper treatment significantly improve their lives, according to Campus Health and Wellbeing.

“Don’t be ashamed of your depression. It’s not the only defining factor in your life,” Wall said.

Wall helps conduct screenings similar to the initial process that Lee went through at the counseling center. He and the rest of the PULSE team are certified educators who provide counseling for students, by students.

“Just because you have depression doesn’t mean that you are a depressed person,” Wall said. “There’s a difference.”

YouTube video

Video by Allison Edmonds

There are many triggers for depression, and sometimes college can contribute to them. College is a place where students are going through a major life transition — from being a teenager to young adulthood. Though many severe forms of depression are often triggered by traumatic events in a person’s past, situational depression is triggered by a person’s situation. This short-term form of depression usually occurs during transitionary stages in people’s lives, such as going to college, and is especially prevalent among young adults.

“Thinking that you are a ‘depressed person’ has this sort of forever characteristic about it in your life,” Wall said. “Having depression is just dealing with depression at one part of your life. It’s not the only thing that’s going on, so not feeling ashamed that you are depressed is really important.”

The transitionary phase that students are in can trigger feelings of depression, especially depending on the level of college they are at. During Fall quarter and around the beginning of the year, Wall explained that there are more first-years seeking counseling from PULSE. Toward the end of the year, PULSE counselors see an influx of graduating seniors coming in for support.

“Depression and anxiety are perfectly normal,” Cal Poly psychology professor Laura Freberg said. “Where they become ‘abnormal’ is when they become disabling.”

There’s really no single factor that can make someone develop any kind of psychological disorder that is truly as disabling as Freberg described. There are several factors that have to be in place.

“Maybe you have a genetic predisposition and you’ve had some past experience interacting with that, so you’re part of the vulnerable population,” Freberg said. “If you then experience loneliness in college, that might be enough.”

According to the UCLA loneliness scale, college students tend to score on the much higher end of loneliness. This feeling combined with the high stress of harder classes and heavy workloads can increase feelings of depression in college students.

Finding the Root

Though some clinicians and pharmaceutical representatives might disagree, psychologists like Freberg are proponents for the vast amount of research that suggests medication is not the only way to deal with depression.

Unlike some other mental health syndromes like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, depression is a condition that can be dealt with just as effectively through therapeutic treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy in which negative patterns of thought about the self and the world are challenged in an attempt to alter unwanted behavior patterns, which in turn alters mood.

“Even just 30 minutes of exercise a day has the same benefits in depression as taking an SSRI (class of medication designed to regulate serotonin levels, which is the brain’s greatest influencer of mood),” Freberg said. “It’s just hard to get people who are depressed to walk around for thirty minutes.”

Shortly after starting his prescribed anti-depressants, Lee noticed an improvement in his happiness and concentration levels. However, he decided to stop taking the prescription and sought a more natural alternative.

“I understood that I felt depressed, but I didn’t want to be on medication,” Lee said. “I wanted to find the root cause of all the things that were making me depressed and tackle them myself. I believe that if you mitigate all those negative factors, that’s the true way of healing.”

While regularly attending counseling, Lee took it upon himself to find ways to cope with his depression beyond the pills. He kept detailed lists of all of his actions, sometimes down to the minute of everything he did that day. He made efforts to eat better, sleep more, surround himself with friends and to be more time efficient and proactive with classes.

“I realized when I started feeling depressed, I started portraying certain emotions or doing certain things that just didn’t help with my current state,” Lee said. “I tried to find the root cause of all the things that added more stress to my life, and tried to eliminate them by handling them in a more effective manner.”

Even today, Lee still picks up a notebook to log his actions whenever he starts feeling depressed. He still keeps in touch with old friends who also went through it, and has started a blogging site about mental health awareness. The physical challenges he pushes himself to achieve such as the Ironman and the Tough Mudder Competitions are not only ways that he raises funds for the cause, but also keep him focused and mindful about mental health.

The coping skills Lee has developed are what the PULSE Mental Health Team call mindfulness. According to Wall, mindfulness is the perspective on life where you’re viewing everything objectively, especially what’s in the present moment. You’re not thinking about the future. You’re not thinking about the past. You’re thinking about right here, right now. Some of these activities include things like reading a book, coloring or going for a hike. Practicing mindfulness tends to eliminate anxiety about the future as well as some stress or regret about the past — all major things that can contribute to depression.

“Putting yourself in the present moment is what truly can help with these feelings of depression,” Wall said.

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