BU Today

Health & Wellness

Students in Crisis: “It’s So Easy to Disappear”

Students with depression, anxiety share stories


Illustration by Reuben Buchanan (CFA’12). Photos below by Kalman Zabarsky

Depression and anxiety on college campuses have risen to epidemic proportions. There are a variety of suspected causes for the alarming trend, which is supported by numerous studies, including a February 2010 Healthy Minds Study finding that 20 percent of BU students surveyed fit the criteria for anxiety or depression.

Yesterday we began a three-part series examining depression and anxiety among BU students. Part one offered an overview and a look at what’s behind the increase and who is most at risk. In part two, we show the faces of depression and anxiety through a series of candid interviews with students. The series concludes with information on how to get help, what that help involves, and how some students suffering from depression and anxiety—treatable conditions—have found hope, and a way out.

Zachary Barnard was a high-achieving, openly gay high school student who graduated cum laude from a private country day school in Savannah, Ga., when he began freshman year at BU. Leaving his friends and family behind, Barnard found himself feeling increasingly frustrated and dejected. He started sleeping through classes and eventually decided to drop one. Spending weekends in his Bay State Road room, he did nothing but sleep, watch TV, and eat. Sometimes he numbed his pain with alcohol. He gained almost 60 pounds.

“It was gradual, but it got worse and worse,” says Barnard (CAS’13), who is majoring in music. “I questioned my friendships. I’d go weeks without calling my parents, who had always been my sounding board. I stopped responding to my mom’s emails. I felt myself losing control.” He eventually opened up to his religion professor, who urged him to see a therapist. His parents agreed.

Barnard now knows that he is one of the many students at BU and other universities who have suffered from the diagnosable and treatable illness depression. In a national survey conducted by the American College Health Association in spring 2010, nearly 29,000 college students said they felt so depressed they couldn’t function. Another 46,000 felt overwhelming anxiety. At BU last year, more than 10,000 students received help, mostly for depression and anxiety, at Student Health Services Behavioral Medicine.

Among the symptoms of depression are feelings of sadness and emptiness, fatigue, changes in appetite, and a loss of energy that can make the smallest task seem difficult. Depression is not a sign of weakness, and is no more a reflection on a person’s character than, say, diabetes or hay fever. It is more persistent, stubborn, and debilitating than a rotten day or a difficult week, and despite what many people say, it is not something a person can “snap out of.” When it comes to the nearly one in five BU students believed to be suffering mild to severe depression, the staff at Behavioral Medicine have a mantra: “Tell someone.” BU is a big place, “so huge,” as one student who recently went for counseling there put it, “that it’s easy to disappear without anyone noticing.”

If a person suspects he or she is depressed, says David Seeman, a Behavioral Medicine therapist, “a key first step is often to apply to ourselves the same compassion we might extend to a friend who is suffering, and recognize that suffering is universally human, and thus we can allow ourselves to go and ask for help.”

Gina,* in her last year of a master’s program, was sleeping more than ever, but in her waking hours her mind raced and she was anxious and irritable, barking at her roommates over unwashed dishes. “The smallest thing would get me upset,” she says. “I’d ask myself, am I depressed, and then decide I wasn’t—I was getting out of bed, I still had an appetite.” Although she faced major life decisions—the fate of a long relationship and the prospect of finding a job—Gina knew it wasn’t normal to be that unhappy and moody. It went on for two months before she turned to Behavioral Medicine.

Stress comes with the territory for most doctoral students, especially when facing the two-steps-forward, one-step-back pitfalls of laboratory research. In the fourth year of her PhD studies, 26-year-old Deborah* assumed she was up to the challenge, until it hit her how huge a commitment she’d made and how she was growing less confident that she was up to it. “I had this panicked feeling,” she recalls. “For me it was the stress of not knowing if I made a good choice—four years into it and my project wasn’t going well.” Engaged to a man living in another state, Deborah also worried that her PhD work would carry into her mid-30s and force her to choose between her degree and starting a family. She worried that if she quit she’d be considered a failure. “I was a mess,” she says. “I cried all the time and could barely get myself out of bed. I had an upset stomach. I got to a point where I thought, I can’t do this anymore; something has to change.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but Deborah was clearly experiencing several of the symptoms on the list: feelings of worthlessness or guilt, blaming yourself when things aren’t going right, indecisiveness, distractibility, trouble concentrating.

Shawna,* a 20-year-old undergraduate, felt a different kind of pressure. Driven as both a student and an athlete, she always felt anxious. “I didn’t think it was a problem,” she says, because a little anxiety is expected when you’re a member of the athletic community and have to balance class work, practice, and games. But when she contacted Behavioral Medicine about grief counseling after a loss experienced by a close friend, Shawna realized after a few counseling sessions how she let things “build and build and build, and when the tears come out it’s overwhelming.” She had to face the fact that she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in months, and that wasn’t normal for her. “I’d get anxiety attacks when something didn’t go right,” she says.

Shawna already had a name for her problem: anxiety. But until she began counseling she didn’t know that the problem is an illness—a treatable one. Hers were among the major symptoms of anxiety disorder, which, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), affects about 19 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 54. Often paired with depression, anxiety is the number-one mental health problem in the United States today. It is characterized by constant worrying or obsession about small or large concerns, restlessness and feeling keyed up or on edge, and trouble sleeping.

When the Persian poet Rumi wrote, ”Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?” he could have been offering a working definition of depression. Former BU student Alice* had felt trapped in her own mind since age 13. She felt insecure and alone, and by the time she turned 15, “the dips into melancholia became longer and more frequent until I finally reached rock bottom.” She began to cut herself as a form of self-punishment. “It became a release for my frustrations,” she says, “a way to force myself out of the numbness that I felt.” She ate less and less, cried herself to sleep, and began to imagine what it would feel like to die. One day, after a bad fight with her mother, Alice grabbed a razor and pressed it to her arm.

This is major depression at its worst. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, and a major risk factor is depression, according to the NIMH. Fortunately, Alice couldn’t go through with it, and the next day her mother arranged a visit to a therapist recommended by their family doctor. Like many freshmen, Alice arrived at BU with a diagnosis of depression and saw a therapist at Behavioral Medicine routinely until she transferred after sophomore year. “Depression is a lifelong battle,” she says. “I thought for the longest time that asking for help was a sign of weakness, but through the years I’ve learned that it is actually a testament to one’s strength.”

All of these students suffered, but all of them are fortunate, because they found their way to professional counselors who put them on the road to health. Zachary Barnard is seeing a Cambridge psychiatrist twice a week and taking an antidepressant. “I’m making an effort to be a lot more honest with myself, and losing the sense that something’s wrong with me,” he says. Enamored of ethnomusicology, which “speaks directly to everything” about himself, he has found a release in writing for his blog. “It’s to explore the world and how I’m experiencing it,” says Barnard, who now runs, works out at the gym, and looks toward the future, as he puts it, with enthusiasm and optimism.

After visiting a therapist at Behavioral Medicine for several months, Gina was feeling better able to cope and decided not to return for a while. “I feel like part of the reason I do okay now is I’ve made a lot of life changes,” she says. “I go to the gym, do yoga once a week, and made some friendship choices, leaving some people behind. At my last visit I felt, I’m okay. When you say you’re in therapy, some people think you’re one step away from a mental institution, but I had a friend say that she went and it really helped her.” Her friend told her not to give up, and after her second visit Gina began to feel at ease. “The therapist told me so many people feel the same way as I did,” she recalls. “I was normal.”

At first, Deborah, too, was reluctant to get help. “My mom has always had the opinion that going to therapy means something’s wrong with you,” she says. But after much thought, Deborah came to the conclusion that struggling through by herself, if it were possible, would take far too long. In therapy at Behavioral Medicine, she and her psychiatrist decided that a very low dose of an antidepressant might help. That and talk therapy have made “a huge difference,” she says, although she understands that she is likely to be coping with depression on and off throughout her life. Now in the throes of her doctoral thesis, Deborah is still under a lot of stress, “but I can handle it much better,” she says. “My stomach is great. Everything is worlds better.”

As for Shawna, she says she’s learned to deal with stress a little better. “My personal opinion is that everyone could benefit from therapy,” she says. “And athletes have a lot of pressure, even if they don’t have a disorder.” Her words echo what the other students expressed in their own way, and what Behavioral Medicine counselors want everyone to know: “It definitely helps to talk to someone.”

*These students agreed to speak to BU Today anonymously.

Those interested in seeking free, confidential mental health counseling can contact Student Health Services Behavioral Medicine, the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, and the Samaritans of Boston suicide hotline.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

Tomorrow, BU Today will publish “Climbing Out,” part three of the three-part “Students in Crisis” series.


18 Comments on Students in Crisis: “It’s So Easy to Disappear”

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 7:43 am

    Excellent article

    This series of articles is excellent and brings to light an issue that many college students are hesitant to discuss or acknowledge. One suggestion: clarify (or emphasize) that this disease affects men as much as women. It is often difficult for young men to seek medical help (let alone for a mental health issue) and it would be helpful if the article could have a balanced number of interviews from men.

  • Lee on 04.26.2011 at 8:32 am

    depressed ideas

    We all need a strong foundations, a faith that transcends the everyday realities of this world, and an outlet for our self-esteem. Whether it is art, volunteer work, music, academics, athletics, church, Bible studies, drama, interactive web-based activities, find something that you enjoy, can do, and can be accountable for. Someone once told me that busy people don’t have time to be depressed, that can be argued but this person was actually passionate about his vocation. Too many people experiment in venues that they are uncomfortable or unequipped for, trying to be a square fitting into a round hole. Why not expand on your strengths, find like minded individuals and choose to make a positive difference in your life, their life and subsequently, your world. And, get 15 minutes of sunshine and fresh air every day, get enough sleep and don’t turn to destructive and mind numbing habits to escape reality. The best therapy and reward is often to look past yourself and help someone in need, and invite them to join with you! I struggle with depression and mood swings, but have come to realize that each morning brings new opportunities and more often than not, I look forward and see hope for new beginnings. And, I do know that God is watching us and is there when we arrive!

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 8:46 am

    Too bad BU’s Behavioral Medicine counselors are always overbooked and the office is understaffed. If you’re lucky enough to get an appointment, they stop seeing you after 3 appointments and try to pawn you off one someone new who is off campus. It would be nice since depression and anxiety is such an issue that the school invest in more staff.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 10:06 am

    National Alliance on Mental Illness

    Depression can be temporary or more persistent. It’s important to know that living under a dark cloud, judging yourself harshly and feeling anxious or irritable can change. There are ways to heal, with friends, meds, exercise, even spiritual perspective — a variety of means that help people recover. Check out http://namimass.org. National Alliance on Mental Illness educates and helps people understand what depression and other forms of mental illness are. They are having a walk to raise awareness on May 21 at Artesani Park on Soldiers Field Road.

  • Jeremy on 04.26.2011 at 10:31 am


    Great job Susan. Thanks for shedding light on an important topic.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 10:50 am

    Endless Depression

    My 4 years at BU was like an eternal night of depression. I wish I had gotten help sooner; I remember entire 48 hours periods where I couldn’t bear to leave my room. I also agree that Behavioral Health is often fully booked, making it difficult for students to secure appointment slots. I never felt more alone then when I was living on a campus bustling with thousands of students and staff.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 11:17 am

    BU Behavioral Medicine counselors

    It would be nice to hear more about the services that are available. There seems to be a disconnect regarding what services are provided and for what length of time. Perhaps someone from Health Services could shed some light on this?

  • a friend on 04.26.2011 at 11:23 am

    Cutting’s not necessarily self-punishment though. Younger people who cut tend to use it as an adrenaline release, a means of numbing. It’s a “coping” skill. It’s not the same as an adult who chooses to cut to end their life.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 11:30 am

    Not Always Possible

    “Someone once told me that busy people don’t have time to be depressed, that can be argued but this person was actually passionate about his vocation.”

    You do not seem to realize that many people with depression no longer find passion in activities or hobbies that they once did. As a person currently experiencing this, I wish every day that I could become excited about things rather than remain apathetic.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 11:31 am

    Don't go looking to BU for serious help

    “Too bad BU’s Behavioral Medicine counselors are always overbooked and the office is understaffed. If you’re lucky enough to get an appointment, they stop seeing you after 3 appointments and try to pawn you off one someone new who is off campus. It would be nice since depression and anxiety is such an issue that the school invest in more staff.”

    When Behavioral Medicine did the same to me, I was quite frustrated. As a result, I now have no access to treatment. They do not care about students who need long term help. Behavioral Medicine abandoned me.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 11:42 am

    Drugs work

    For decades various talk therapy approaches have showed mixed results. In the last few years, drug only and drug mostly therapies have yielded EXCELLENT results. I spent about 6 months on anti-anxiety meds following a divorce. I knew what my ‘normal’ mental outlook was, and I knew what behaviours were anxity driven, which feelings were rational, which were irrational, but that wasn’t enough. Small doses of medication quickly brought me most of the way back to my pre-crisis ‘normal’ state of mind. And then I got better. Other people I know are living good lives through major chemistry that would have been institutionalized 20 years ago. Try the behavioral counselling, but if that doesn’t work for you … you are about average … I suggest you find a good physician and work with them to determine the correct balance of high quality drugs.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 11:42 am

    “Why not expand on your strengths, find like minded individuals and choose to make a positive difference in your life, their life and subsequently, your world.”

    You make it sound so easy.

    “don’t turn to destructive and mind numbing habits to escape reality.”

    People with depression generally despise their realities. This is why they often attempt to escape those realities. Considering the world we live in, I am happy retreating to my personal fantasies sometimes. It is my coping mechanism for depression.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 11:57 am

    BU's therapists

    I have Major Depressive Disorder and Panic Disorder, and went to see a BU therapist. At my first appointment they just gave me a list of therapists outside of BU and told me that BU’s Behavioral Medicine is really just for “temporary problems” and that they don’t really want people to come more than three times. None of the other therapists they gave me were within a commute that would fit my schedule, or covered by my insurance. This article makes it seem like BU is much more “there for you” and prepared than it really is. If depression is such a major problem on campus they really need to step it up.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 2:37 pm

    I am new to BU, but have been fighting major depression for over four years now. BU’s behavioral medicine has been great. Mind you I did get lucky, as the person I was paired with is very compatible with me. The psychiatrist I have seen to discuss my antidepressants, on the other hand, is way more into just diagnosing a problem, rather than realizing it is more. My depression is very multifaceted, but it doesn’t define me. The person I work with has been great and has never pigeonholed me. Which I appreciate.

    The stigma with depression is super negative, and I am only beginning to talk about it now, but it helps. I feel that the BU Secret campaign was a great way to help show the campus that depression is a wide spread issue. And nothing to be ashamed of.

  • Bernard Grogan on 04.26.2011 at 4:59 pm

    Thank you!

    Thank you for publishing this important series on Depression. I was a student at BU from 2001-2004, and because of Major Depression, I never graduated and it still haunts me to this day. I loved BU and my life seemed to be great….for whatever reason, I was never able to treat the disease well enough to return to finish my degree. Since I have left, I’ve noticed a much more open discussion on Depression amongst college students and I hope that students will read these articles and get the help needed so they don’t end up in a situation like mine.

  • Kathy Sheehan on 04.26.2011 at 8:14 pm

    Thanks for the article

    Glad to see this issue being addressed. Back in the 1970s, I had a fellow SPC (now COM) student approach me about her depression. I didn’t know how to help back then, and the only thing I had to offer was to point her to a plaque in the building that had helped me through some tough times. It said something to the effect: There are no problems in life, only challenges. … I wonder if that quote is still there?

  • Anonymous on 04.27.2011 at 11:03 am

    Fact Checking Question: Hi,

    Fact Checking Question:

    Hi, Thanks for a helpful article but I have a fact checking question. You said:
    “At BU last year, more than 10,000 students received help,
    mostly for depression and anxiety, at Student Health Services
    Behavioral Medicine.”
    Is “more than 10,000” the correct number?

  • Anonymous on 04.27.2011 at 7:12 pm

    DISAPPOINTED by BU mental service

    Can’t agree more with the previous posts. After going to the Mental Health once, they referred me to some therapists off campus, which really frustrates me! I also feel I am abandoned… Do you guys think it is enough to send me away after getting my basic background and give me a referral to somewhere else? It even makes me symptom worse…

    PLEASE provide long-term treatment to need student, that is the whole point of mental health service, isn’t it??

Post Your Comment

(never shown)