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Out of the blue 

Students are increasingly at risk for depression and worse, but there are ways to help

Emily Spiegel was a junior at Colorado College, pursuing a degree in studio arts. She headed the student mental health organization GROW and served as vice president of the CC student government association.

Spiegel died on March 26, a suicide.

According to "Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media," a guide produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies, this is the limit of information a writer can safely relay about Spiegel. She is not a hero. Her death is not a mystery. "Idealizing those who take their own lives" or "presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise high-achieving person" increases the chance of identification with the victim, the guide states.

Details, too, can be troublesome. Headlines such as "Official: Robin Williams Hanged Himself with Belt" can be incendiary. Viral pictures such as Aladdin hugging the Genie with the caption "Genie, You're Free" in this context could further warp a mind that suffers from a chemical imbalance.

When it comes to college campuses, a death such as Spiegel's should be treated carefully, if possible, with attention directed toward mental health awareness, says Heather Horton, director of CC's Wellness Resource Center. "One of the things we know about mental illness," she says, "is that early identification and early intervention tends to lead to better outcomes."

Alone in a crowd

The late teens and early 20s are common ages for the onset of depression. But unless they're mind readers, students usually walk around campuses oblivious to the struggles of passersby, saying "Hi, how are you?" without even being present for the answer. Says Horton: "Social relationships go the way we normally operate as human beings and reinforce the idea that 'This is a happy place.'"

One problem that arises is that a school like Colorado College is such a seemingly happy place; students who are struggling sometimes have to contest this "myth of happiness" for the sake of their sanity. Still, in the past year, the school's counseling center saw more than 30 percent of the student population, which is high compared to other institutions, Horton says.

What about the students who don't seek help?

College can be a time of paradoxical depression. Freshmen come to campus and are immediately surrounded by thousands of peers. They're expected to be social when the occasion calls for it: play several beer pong games, take a few bong rips, maybe experiment with some psychedelics, and pray that none of this interferes with their Prozac.

Increased stressors and drug use can act as catalysts for nature's loaded gun.

"I'm not here to say 'Don't do this,' but I want to encourage students to make informed choices," says Horton. "At least, look at family history and what they know about themselves before they make a decision."

Betty Jo Smith, a counselor at CC, says that "feeling isolated, alone, far away from home," and having high and unmet expectations are common triggers for depression. "Many students come in to my office feeling that they haven't done what they've hoped to do, or performed as well as they should have," she says. For over-achievers, Smith emphasizes self-care.

Smith says many new psychologists and therapists are undergoing mind-body training to help understand techniques for controlling depression. For many people, getting back in tune with yourself may be as simple as taking a jog around Monument Valley Park, or having a conversation with a good friend. For others, the change in brain activity that produced the depression may be too severe, and they may be led to trying an antidepressant such as Zoloft or Prozac.

Tuning in

In any case, we can all be more attentive to possible cues and clues. If you've noticed changes in a friend, the best action you can take is to talk and try to understand, Horton says.

"We're brought up in this society that tells us that those conversations are an invasion of privacy and over-stepping our bounds," she explains. But: "People want you to notice if something's wrong; they want you to reach out to them."

Colorado College's GROW, started four years ago, works to make such conversations easier. Meeting every Monday in the basement of the chapel, it aims to provide a refuge for students to discuss mental health struggles.

Alta Viscomi, who is heading into her senior year at CC, knew Spiegel and will become a GROW leader soon. As an overwhelmed freshman, she was drawn to the group, she says: "GROW felt like a safe space where everything slowed down for an hour."

Other schools offer their own types of help to students. Through University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' Counseling Center, for instance, you can do an anonymous and free online screening that will let you know if you're at risk. Pikes Peak Community College runs a Student Counseling and Resource Center in addition to other services.

Then there is the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and also Colorado Springs' Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. DBSA offers group counseling for youths ages 15 to 27, and one of the goals, says the organization's Ralph Lundgren, is to get rid of added collegiate stress. "The group lets them talk to people who understand — it's not like talking to people in the street who have no idea," he says. "They're afraid to get help in the first place because they're afraid to let their parents down."

In the next few years, Viscomi says she expects to see mental health issues become less stigmatized, and mentions a number of friends who have disclosed issues with depression, anxiety and eating disorders. She also sees a suite of solutions.

"To be a truly healthy person," she says, "you have to take care of yourself in every way, from sleeping enough to eating your veggies to avoiding toxic relationships."

hfleming@csindy.com

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