Depression the New Worry for College Students

Xiao Yu (alias), a Ph. D candidate at a Beijing university, is very active on social media with daily updates. Looking at her profile alone, it’s hard to imagine she has been struggling with depression for the last five years.

“It wouldn’t be so difficult to recognize if I knew the source. It’s like a cold. When I realized I was depressed, it was already too late,” she said.

In the second year of her master’s program, Xiao Yu developed severe insomnia and her grades worsened. She started criticizing herself, then doubting everything she did. At the urging of her friends, she finally went to her university’s mental health center for a consultation. She was referred to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with severe depression.

Since her diagnosis, Xiao Yu has had three breakdowns. The most recent happened while she was writing her graduate thesis. The pressure of her research and job search depressed her immune system, and depression soon took over. “I couldn’t focus, couldn’t remember anything, couldn’t write anything. I was on a lot of medicine, and I experienced all the side effects such as nausea and soreness. Between the physical and mental torture, I wanted to die.”

No fewer than 130,000 people commit suicide every year in China. Among this group, 40 percent were previously diagnosed with depression. Recently, 40 students at a top university in Beijing were diagnosed with depression – approximately 2 percent of all students surveyed. Ambitious and intelligent students we considered to have a higher risk of depression.

Most schools in Beijing have mental health centers with professional counselors who provide student surveys, mental health education and consultation. Although they cannot make a diagnosis, they can help prevent the development of mental illness.

“We used to find one or two students with depression for every 10 students we surveyed five years ago. Now we find three or four are depressed,” said Zhang Wen (alias), the manager of a university mental health center.

“College students have higher risk of developing depression. We had 1,500 students visit the center last year, and 2 percent were diagnosed with depression. According to our statistics, 40 students schoolwide were confirmed to have clinical depression. If we adjust for how many students we never reached, the number could be even higher,” he said.

“I’m not good enough” is a common feeling expressed by such students. Depression affects emotion, self-realization and motivation, Zhang said. “They lose interest in life and feel it is meaningless. In severe cases, patient tend to pursue suicide,” he said.

“It’s very painful both physically and mentally to experience depression, and most people can’t understand the misery,” Zhang said.

Most student visits to the counselor are triggered by stress, romantic breakups and loss of friendship. “Pretty every problem falls into one of four categories: schoolwork, relationship, family or self-realization,” Zhang said. “Every school is different…, Students from art universities tend to have more relationship troubles, while the ones from general universities tend to have more academic troubles.”

The Director of Beijing Huilongguan Hospital Yang Pude said the number of people with depression nationwide exceeds 26 million. According to Beijing General Hospital’s statistics, only 10 percent receive professional treatment.

Zhang said students refuse to visit the mental health center because they think depression is an embarrassing condition. Others worry such a diagnosis may affect their employment prospects, Beijing Youth Daily reported. It’s an unfounded worry, Zhang said, as visits to the university mental health center are not recorded in a student’s record.

“We are required to keep student records discreet,” Zhang said. “Only if the student’s situation is severe enough to result in an extreme act will we will notify the school and parents. We usually make this clear to the students before our consultation.”

But many companies have started to test the mental health of job candidates.

College graduate Zhao Wen (alias) passed the written test and interview with a company this spring. During her health exam, the company required an additional mental health test.

At the hospital, she was asked to fill out questions regarding personality traits, current mental state, marriage status, family situation and school. “Who can guarantee the accuracy of this test? If someone couldn’t find a job because of this test, does it count as discrimination and unfair judgment?” she said.

However, when it comes to recruitment, companies usually hold a different attitude toward mental health.

“As many as 48 percent of all hiring managers think a candidate’s mental state is more important than his or her skills. Even if the candidate is very capable, if he or she is mentally unstable, the company will not consider him or her,” said a mental health professional who would not be named.

Most companies who asked him to evaluate mental health tests are in the education, medical and security fields, he said. Many candidates are disqualified based on their results.

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