Helping College Students Cope With Post-Holiday Depression

Live Health Chat
Hartford Courant

January 13, 2011

Wintertime blues can hit college students, too. Many return to campus after the holiday fun and the warm embrace of family and friends. It’s cold and bleak outside; freshman say the novelty of college has worn off. Illnesses often spread, and parents start getting calls — maybe school isn’t for me after all; can I come home? What’s the cure?

Susan Birge, Ed.D., L.P.C. Assistant Vice President/Director of Counseling & Psychological Services, Robert Wething, M.A., L.M.F.T. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, both of Fairfield University, and Steven Roy Goodman, MS, JD, Educational Consultant and Admissions Strategist, answered questions and offered advice to parents and students during a live chat on Jan. 13.


Kathy Megan: Welcome to our weekly health chat. I’m Kathy Megan. I cover colleges and the college application process for the Courant. This week we will be talking about college students and post-holiday blues. After being home in the warm embrace of families and friends, it’s often a bit of an adjustment for students — perhaps particularly freshmen — when they return to college in January. The webchat will start at noon.

Kathy Megan: Today our guests are Susan Birge, Ed. L.P.C. Assistant Vice President/Director of Counseling & Psychological Services at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Also from Fairfield is Robert Wething, M.A., L.M.F.T. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. And, we have Steven Roy Goodman, MS, JD, Educational Consultant and Admissions Strategist. Steve is based in Washington, D.C., but works with students on admissions from all over the country. He is the co-author of “College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family.”

Kathy Megan: Hi all… Susan, maybe you could start by telling us a little about what you see in on campus during January and February… Is it a time when students are likely to be down? What is the prevalence?

Kathy Megan: Rob and Steve, you also are welcome to chime in on this.. What do you hear from students in January and Feb..?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: First, let me thank you for inviting us to join you today. As mental health clinicians at a university, we see peak times when students seek help for stress, depression, and anxiety. Certainly exam time can be challenging – also times of transition such as arriving on campus, returning after long breaks and leaving for summer.

Comment From Kim: Hi, my daughter had a very short Christmas break, about 10 days, and since she went back on 1/4/11 I get a daily phone call telling me she wants to come home, she misses everyone (especially her boyfriend), and she can’t stop crying. This has gone on now for two weeks. She’s talked to the counselor at school but they’ve basically told her to talk to me about it.

Kathy Megan: Hi, Susan and/or Rob would you have a response for Kim? About how she can handle this?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Kim, typically the students adjusts well after a week or so. Encouraging her to hang in and stay connected to friends is important. Send a message that you believe in her ability to cope and persevere.

Comment From Ashley: I’m a junior and I still am very upset when I have to go back to school for second semester. Do you guys have any coping methods? I want to move away from home one day and am afraid if I never figure out how to cope I will always be dependent on my parents.

Robert Wething, LMFT: In some ways that’s a tough question, because as a counselor I would try to explore the reasons for the unhappiness. I’m not sure I would simply refer the student back to their parent, but instead would encourage her to engage in the process of discovering what’s wrong in therapy.

Kathy Megan: I have a question, Susan … Does it make things better or worse if parents are always taking phone calls from students…? Should they limit the phone calls or not?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Phone calls, texts and emails from parents are usually important in keeping communication open – however, excessive contact can create dependency which precludes the child from becoming independent.

Kathy Megan: Rob and Susan, perhaps you have a comment for Ashley..? Also, Steve, I’m wondering, do hear this from some of the students you counsel on admissions? Do some start out fearful about going away to school? How do you talk to them or do you recommend that they attend a school near home?

Robert Wething, LMFT: Yes regarding Ashley… I am a therapist so I do recommend therapy…but I do believe in the positive results that can come from simply having a big conversation with someone about places were both anxiety and depression crop up within oneself.

Kathy Megan: I have an email from a reader who wanted me to pose this question: Do letters, cards or things similar help the student stay motivated and focused on their goals? How frequently should these things be mailed off?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Hi Ashley, Stay connected to your friends and family and try your best to maintain your daily routine. Remind yourself that you have been through this before and that it passes. Don’t forget to try to get some exercise and healthy food. Coping is a mix of attitude and lifestyle.

Steven Roy Goodman: Thank you, Kathy – and thank you to Courant readers who understand the importance of depression on college campuses. January can be a tough month for a lot of students, many of whom come to realize that not every minute of their college experience is going to be perfect. Being away from home can certainly be stressful for some students, but I usually encourage students to focus on the positive aspects of their college experience (interesting courses, new friends, etc.) – understanding, of course, that not every single aspect of their daily college life is going to be perfect.

Comment From Ashley: How are ways we can socialize that does not involve partaking in activities outside that will get us sick and without drinking?

Comment From Kim: Hi again, she’s not sure if she’s chosen the right field and/or college. The counselor has told her this is normal. I just want her to stick it out through the end of this year. She also has a 4 month externship that she needs to complete at the end of her 2nd semester which is also adding to the stress. She’s only 2 hours away so she comes home every weekend…I just tell her to get through the week. I don’t know what to do at this point because I’m really worried that she’ll drop out.

Kathy Megan: Great questions… Maybe someone would have some thoughts on how to get involved with positive campus activities … Also, from Kim: how do you know if the ‘depression’ or ‘blues’ is because of a particular college or field vs. something that would be going on wherever the student was …

Steven Roy Goodman: Socializing does not always have to take the form of beer parties late at night. One can socialize over lunch, during a study break in the library, or while pursuing any number of extracurricular activities on campus. The key is to get involved in activities that you like.

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Perhaps, her counselor is trying to “normalize” some of the confusion and questions your daughter is experiencing. The most important part of counseling is the therapeutic relationship. If your daughter is not feeling a strong and trusting bond with her therapist, she might want to consider trying a different therapist. She may respond to a therapist who is more solution focused or directive.

Robert Wething, LMFT: During the first weeks of each semester, most campus groups are heavily into recruiting new members. With regards to getting involved, I do encourage students to take a chance and simply join an organization that appears interesting to them.

Comment From Ashley: Becoming involved in activities I like sounds great. My only concern is that my school does not offer any clubs that I like. They are either all sororities or frats and then everything else is medical related.

Comment From Guest: Do those light lamps that mimic sunlight actually help with seasonal affective disorder?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Part of being human is experiencing the ups and downs of life. Depression is when an individual’s mood is so low (for 30 days or more) that one’s ability to function is impaired. Depression is best treated with therapy and often, an anti-depressant medication.

Kathy Megan: Back to Kim’s daughter for a minute, I wanted to ask Susan or Rob: She’s says her daughter comes home on weekends… Is that a good idea or not? Should Kim encourage her to stay at school or is it better to just let her come home if she wants to …?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: The full spectrum lights have proven to increase dopamine which improves mood. We recommend using such a light, especially when clients have Seasonal Affective Disorder – depressed mood as a result of diminished daylight and cold.

Steven Roy Goodman: Don’t be afraid to look at student clubs that might not have interested you last semester. Also, most colleges are open to students suggesting new clubs.

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Regarding Kim’s daughter going home on the weekend – it can delay her ability to learn to cope – meet friends, get involved, and feel confident that she can be on campus.

Kathy Megan: I wanted to ask Steve: I think you mentioned that you have a some students who are eager to go to New England Colleges, but perhaps they come from a different area of the country and when they get here, they are surprised at how ‘bleak’ winter can be … Is this something you talk about with students when they are coming up with college application lists?

Robert Wething, LMFT: Regarding Kim’s daughter, it’s a tough call to make. I am a parent with three kids in college…as a parent you simply try to do whatever it takes, and that’s not always clear. I don’t mean to sound redundant, but I would encourage the daughter to be speaking with another person also, i.e. a therapist. Chances are there is something she knows she needs to address.

Kathy Megan: On Kim’s daughter again: Are there any particular signs that Kim should watch for that might tell her that perhaps her daughter should drop out and come home? Or that perhaps more immediate help is needed? I’m sure as a parent, listening to your daughter cry on the phone every night, is very alarming … And it’s unclear what you should be doing to help ….

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Recognizing signs and symptoms of depression (which is different than going through a rough patch) include: fatigue, restlessness, boredom, social isolation, irritability, change in appetite and/or sleep, inability to concentrate, lack of motivation and sometimes feeling suicidal. Depression can be treated – when a person is suicidal, immediate help is needed.

Comment From Kim: Thank you all for your input!

Comment From Guest: Is it possible that because parents stay much more in touch with their college-age kids these days via text and facebook that they are making the problem worse with too much communication. How much contact would you recommend parents have? Once a week calls? How much is too much?

Steven Roy Goodman: A lot of students are attracted to the beauty and history of New England colleges. However, it is one thing to experience a rural New England college for a weekend, and another to live in a cold-weather climate far from home – and perhaps far from a big city as well. While students should certainly think about weather when drawing up their college lists, they should also think about distance from home, size of the student body, and available academic and extracurricular programs.

Kathy Megan: Steve, are you likely to get phone calls from unhappy students in January and February who are questioning their college choice? How do you counsel them? If they want to apply for transfer, they have to get those applications in soon, right?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Most colleges and universities have excellent mental health services which include therapists and psychiatrists. Parents should encourage their sons or daughters to use these services, which are part of the costs of tuition. Also, professional staff are willing to provide consultation to parents when concerns arise. However, unless the student-client agrees or harm is imminent, no information about their child may be shared by the therapist.

Kathy Megan: Rob, I think when young women are feeling “down,” they often do what Kim’s daughter is doing: make weepy phone calls home… I believe you work with a lot of young men.. What are the signs that a young man might be experience winter blues– signs that might be different those shown?

Robert Wething, LMFT: Regarding the above comment from the Guest about how much contact with parents is good…Sometimes parents are good resources, and good mentors for their children/young adults. When the relationship with parents is positive, and the parents are a good resource intellectually and emotionally, the level of connection will probably have its own natural ebb and flow.

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia (mood disorders) typically emerge during the years of 17 to 25. College mental health providers are attuned to recognize these mood disorders and provide appropriate treatment. Most students use counseling for stress, relationship issues, family problems, grief, and confusion about sexual orientation.

Steven Roy Goodman: A number of students question their college choices in January and February. The excitement of first semester is behind them – and in front of them is a lot of snow, a lot of reading, and the realities of day-to-day student life. I often say that first semester is like a vacation to France – while the rest of your college experience may be more about day-to-day living in new place. Before submitting transfer applications, it might be helpful to think about what is making you unhappy. Is it something about your particular college, or is it something internal (that is likely to make you unhappy at a new college as well)?

Robert Wething, LMFT: Kathy, I think young men tend towards isolation, a low-level grumpiness, and a “don’t bug me” attitude. When guys hurt, frequently they don’t want to talk about it. They want to hide it, and are hoping it will just go away.

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Another consideration in dealing with college students is substance abuse. Using/abusing alcohol and other drugs can significantly impact mood and functioning. Most colleges provide substance abuse assessment and treatment for high risk substance abuse.

Comment From Ashley: What is a good way to deal with anxiety at school?

Robert Wething, LMFT: Ashley, this year we began implementing group therapy as our primary mode of therapy. It is an extremely effective way of dealing with anxiety…Plus finding out that there are others dealing with the issue can be very comforting/normalizing.

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: We like to approach an individual holistically. With depression and anxiety, physical issues are checked such as thyroid and anemia. We also factor in genetics – those who have family members who struggle with mood disorders are at a higher risk to develop a mood disorder. Depression and anxiety can be biological or environmental or both. It’s important to identify this is creating an effective plan for treatment.

Kathy Megan: So Rob, on the young men.. That description of young men as grumpy and with a “don’t bug me” attitude sounds about right. So if a parent is experiencing this from a young man, how can they approach that young man to try to get past the ‘crusty exterior’? Is there a way to get past that to find out what’s really on the young man’s mind?

Comment From Guest: If I as a parent suggest to my child to seek help from a counselor and they refuse. What should I do? Is there a way to encourage them to seek help that will make them more comfortable?

Steven Roy Goodman: It might be worth pointing out that college is usually more difficult academically than high school. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that some college freshmen encounter academic material that they don’t initially understand. This can be a bit depressing – especially for students who were straight A students in high school.

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: If a parent has serious concerns about their child’s mental/emotional help, I think it’s important to get them to a mental health clinician. Their child may not want to (and that may be part of the depression and/or anxiety), but the parent should be firm: “I’m concerned about you – you seem down and not yourself. I want you to talk with a counselor. Please set up an appointment by the end of the week – if you would like me to join you, I will – this is important and I expect you to follow through.” Teaching and encouraging a young person to engage in help-seeking behavior will help them during the course of their life –

Comment From Ashley: Would you recommend someone stay busy so they do not think about their depression or SAD as opposed to having time to just sit around and relax where thinking about it might occur?

Robert Wething, LMFT: Kathy, I find with my son that if I let my guard down first, frequently he will follow suit. By that I mean sometimes you need to begin the conversation by confessing that you don’t know how to have the conversation. Next, simply report what you observe without judgment and with a little compassion. One him might get rebuffed at first, but laying the groundwork so he can go away and think about it will be worth it.

Comment From Nancy: What about the importance of exercise to help elevate one’s mood? I’m surprised nobody has mentioned that yet.

Kathy Megan: Steve, that’s good advice for a student considering whether to transfer about distinguishing between whether it’s internal or external…If a student really isn’t sure, do you recommend submitting a few applications to transfer just in case? Or what do you advise in that case? Do you sometimes get in the middle of it with families: where the parents are on one side of this and students on the other? How do you deal with that?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: Staying busy? I’d suggest staying functional. Keep up daily routines, stay connected to friends and family, and exercise – exercise elevates the serotonin & dopamine levels in the brain, which improves mood. It’s also a great way to relieve stress…and feel good about one’s self.

Robert Wething, LMFT: Absolutely yes on exercise.

Steven Roy Goodman: I help transfer applicants every year, but I always warn students and parents that transfer applications often come with a psychological cost. If you are focused on transferring, then you might not be as focused on your current coursework. Having said that, students who find that they are enrolled in the wrong college for them should absolutely consider transferring.

Comment From Guest: Is this problem common around the country, or is it more specific to cold-weather climates? Do kids going to college in Florida experience the same symptoms?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: We are talking about feeling “blue” and depression – Rob and I want to emphasize the importance of picking up on signs of possible suicide. When a person makes reference about taking his/her life, gives away belongings, withdraws, exhibits a change of personality, please get help – feeling overwhelmed and being impulsive is a bad combination.

Kathy Megan: Are most colleges aware of the ‘winter blues’ tendency and try to schedule a lot of fun activities for students during the winter months … Does Fairfield do anything, Susan and Rob, to counter the cold weather blues?

Steven Roy Goodman: Adjustment to college life is an issue across the country. A few years ago, I had a student from New York who went to a well-known party school in Florida. After a semester, he decided he wanted to transfer to a college that was more academic. He had not been a stellar student in high school, but his first-semester experience in a warm-weather school convinced him that he needed to take his studies more seriously.

Kathy Megan: We are going to wrap up… Susan, Rob, Steve: Do you have any last comments you would like to make?

Susan Birge, Fairfield University Counseling: In closing, the college experience can be an exiting time filled with much growth – intellectually, culturally, socially, physically and spiritually. It is also a time when mood disorders emerge and students experience many stressors – academic, financial, relationship and family issues. We encourage students to use mental health services on campus.

Steven Roy Goodman: As you settle in for second semester, try to focus on what makes you happy. Then, if possible, do a lot of it!

Robert Wething, LMFT: My experience at Fairfield University is that all aspects of the University… academic, residential life, student affairs, etc. are deeply committed to educating the whole student… Body mind and spirit and actively look for ways to engage the students during their four years here.

Kathy Megan: Thank you very much Susan, Rob and Steve! We really appreciate your participation and good thoughts on all of this. The full transcript of this conversation will be available at

Thank you very much also to all of our participants!

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