Weak. Detached. Indifferent.
The looming stigma of depression is all too familiar to UCF junior Kayla Symonds.
“Sometimes people view you as delicate or a ticking time bomb,” said Symonds, an interdisciplinary studies major. “And it’s not their fault. It’s linked to how they’ve been exposed to the world.”
Symonds, 20, has grappled with depression since the age of 16. While in high school, she struggled to pinpoint its catalyst but could never seem to find it.
Her symptoms grew insidiously. She doubted herself, lacked motivation, suffered from irrational feelings and distanced herself from others.
Her parents and friends suggested natural remedies — praying, exercising, meditation.
“You can’t pray away depression,” Symonds said. “I felt like I was moving through fog.”
At 18, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed anti-depressant medication.
“I felt like I could function again,” Symonds said. “There’s a misconception that depression medicine numbs your feelings. It actually balances you out and helps you handle day-to-day life like a normal person.”
Symonds is just one of the estimated 350 million people worldwide suffering from depression, according to the World Health Organization. By 2030, it is predicted to be the leading cause of mental disorders.
Symptoms can range from a loss of interest in activities to reduced energy, persistent feelings of helplessness and worthlessness, poor concentration, difficulty sleeping and suicidal thoughts.
“You wouldn’t tell a diabetic that it’s their fault their pancreas doesn’t produce insulin,” Symonds said. “My neurotransmitters just don’t work properly.”
Depression is linked to abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that help relay signals from one area of the brain to the other, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. These key neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
To cope with the symptoms of depression, Symonds recommends speaking to a therapist.
“A lot of people suffering from depression say they don’t have the right to feel depressed if their lives are going well,” Symonds said. “They constantly ask themselves, ‘Why am I depressed?’ There isn’t always a why. There’s something wrong and there’s no shame in asking for help.”
Despite the stigma of mental health conditions, there has been a nationwide increase in the number of students seeking help at university counseling centers since the mid-1990s, according to the American Psychological Association. Depression, which was at the forefront of these concerns, is the leading cause of college dropout.
At UCF, Counseling and Psychological Services is recognized as the chief mental health resource. The free-of-charge agency provides in-person and online counseling, workshops and presentations for enrolled students.
Teresa Michaelson-Chmelir, the associate director of outreach and community intervention at CAPS, said whether students are coping with a difficult breakup or suicidal thoughts, the clinicians on staff are well-trained to battle depression from all angles.
“We use different types of techniques to help students manage their depression or alleviate it,” Michaelson-Chmelir said. “CAPS works very closely with Student Health Services and psychiatrists at UCF, so if it’s warranted, we might make a referral for a psychiatric evaluation or prescribe medication for those dealing with a very chronic depression.”
Michaelson-Chmelir noted that the clinicians see about 7 to 9 percent of the student body, which is average for a campus the size of UCF. Depression and anxiety rank among the most common mental health issues treated at CAPS and other centers across the United States.
In addition to counseling, some UCF Knights have sought to improve their mental well-being by becoming involved in the campus chapter of Active Minds.
The student-run organization has provided a safe and supportive environment for those suffering from mental health disorders since the late 2000s. Using the student voice as their tool, members aim to destigmatize mental health issues through open discussions.
“It helps to know that you’re not alone,” said Alexandra Sofos, a member of Active Minds since the fall of 2016.
The senior psychology major recalled that some newcomers would barely utter a goodbye as they left the meetings. Over time, they began to reveal more about their personal lives, which prompted her to do the same.
Sofos, a 24-year-old diagnosed with clinical depression, said her involvement helped “lift the veil of shame” she felt that’s commonly associated with mental health conditions. Speaking freely at the organization’s bi-monthly meetings was therapeutic, she added.
“It makes people want to open up,” Sofos said. “One of the major problems is that those suffering from mental illness feel like they’re not normal. The fact of the matter is that they’re completely normal.”
The American College Counseling Association reported that 35.3 percent of the almost 75,000 undergraduate students who completed its 2015 survey said they felt depressed, so much so that it was difficult to function during the past 12 months.
But for Jan, 19, UCF was a breath of fresh air.
The now UCF freshman, who has suffered from depression since the seventh grade, assumed she wouldn’t reach the age of 18.
“It slowly took over my life and changed my perspective on everything,” Jan said. “And eventually, I couldn’t even imagine myself going to college.”
She lacked the drive to get out of bed, much less shape her future.
With the push from a close friend, Jan mustered the courage to apply to UCF in February of her senior year of high school. The criminal justice major finished her first semester of college on Dec. 15.
Despite the academic and social pressures of college, UCF senior Matthew, 21, also said that becoming a Knight helped him battle depression.
In addition to taking anti-depressant medication, the event management major said that young adults struggling with depression should try let their guard down.
“The last thing you want to do [while] depressed is to show your weakness to your friends,” Matthew said.
Students struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts can contact UCF CAPS at 407-823-2811, a 24-hour crisis line at 407-425-2624 or the National Hope Hotline, which forwards your call to the nearest crisis hotline in your area, at 800-784-2433.
Editor’s Note: The Central Florida Focus omitted Matthew’s and Jan’s last names due to the sensitivity of their situations.