I am a sophomore in college, and I think I may be suffering from chronic depression. I perceive that I do not have any friends, or as many as I feel I need, or want, or should have. I spend much of my time alone in my room, or walking around campus alone, or eating alone. It is fairly typical for me to find myself holed up in my room on a Friday or Saturday evening, even though I hope and wish for something to do, for someone to call.
I find it extremely difficult to talk to people or to make new friends, and as a result, I imagine that people do not like me. This leads to feelings of self-loathing, low self-esteem, and a need for acceptance. I no longer have much interest in doing anything, I have no real enthusiasm for life, I can't sleep at night, and I often have violent nightmares. I want to change, and people offer me advice like, "Go out and meet people!", "Have courage!", or "Join a club!" I would like to do all of these things, but I feel that my problems are intrinsic, and I don't believe that I can change my personality. Do you have any relief for me?
One in the City of Eight Million Souls
Dear One in the City of Eight Million Souls,
Clearly, you already do have courage; even so, it can be difficult to recognize and admit that you aren't happy with how you feel. So, it’s brave of you to reach out for help. For many students, college can be an emotional rollercoaster of self-doubt, loneliness, anxiety, or depression. But, with some support and exploration, there may be some ways you can begin to feel less alone. First, you might think about carving out some time to reflect on when you started to feel the way you do. Thinking about what might be causing your nightmares, and how you can reconnect with people and your own interests is a worthy — perhaps essential — use of your time.
Just about everyone goes through times of feeling sad, lonely, and even dejected at some point in their life. After a while, the exciting newness of college may wear off, and many students feel stress and pressure to be "connected" socially, while still focusing on their academic goals. Feeling isolated and depressed might make it seem nearly impossible to build relationships with others or to enjoy things that previously brought you pleasure. Symptoms such as yours are, in fact, some of the most common reasons people seek professional counseling, and could be a result of both life experiences as well as a chemical imbalance that affects mood. Consider talking with a skilled and caring person — like a mental health professional — as this may help you to identify the underlying reasons for your feelings. Speaking with a mental health professional can also help you develop coping mechanisms so that you may be more able to reach out to people, sleep better, and turn what are now only wishes into realistic, attainable goals.
When it comes to building up your network of friends and social supports, your peers' advice to "join a club" or "meet new people" probably comes from a well-meaning place. But, such big social leaps like those can feel overwhelming. Perhaps you can start with smaller steps, such as shooting an acquaintance a quick text message just to say "hi" every so often, or practicing your conversational skills with trusted family members before branching out to others. Reaching out in small ways could build your social comfort and confidence, which can, in turn, help you feel less lonely. Making friends when I have low self-esteem in the Go Ask Alice! archives has even more tips on small but effective ways to feel socially connected and less lonely.
Because many students feel depressed, stressed, or lonely at points during college, most campuses have a wealth of resources available. For starters, you may want to reach out to your college's health or wellness center. The professionals at those offices typically have loads of experience working with students who have feelings and experiences quite similar to your own. Your campus counseling services could work with you on any mental health concerns you have (whether you have a diagnosis or not), may provide you with referrals for on-going therapy, and might assess whether medication would help. In fact, your campus may even have support groups available, if you're interested in working through some of your feelings with a group of supportive and like-minded peers.
If you don't feel quite ready to reach out to a mental health professional just yet, it may still be worth chatting with a relative, old friend, dean, program coordinator, resident advisor (RA), professor, or clergy member about how you're feeling. There are also a number of ways you might be able to take action on your own to combat feelings of loneliness or depression, such as engaging in physical activity, avoiding alcohol and drugs if they make you feel worse, or setting small daily goals for yourself. Remember, though, that there's no need to go it alone! When you're ready, reaching out to others for guidance, support, or just a listening ear can make all the difference. For tips on how to reach out for help, consider reading Depressed and shy: Finding the courage to get help in the Go Ask Alice! archives.
If nothing else, remember that you are not alone. It might sound cliché, but there really are many college students and other people who feel as you do. Through hard work and support, you may begin to discover the gifts you have to offer and you can build up confidence to reach out to make connections with other people. It typically doesn't happen overnight, but it does happen. Though you can't totally change your personality (no need: it's what makes you a unique, special person), you can develop healthy coping skills and feel enthusiasm for life.