‘No Need to Struggle in Silence’: SMHS Dean Discusses Mental Health

Jeffrey S. Akman, M.D., talks about common issues for college students and how to seek help.

Jeff Akman
Dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and Vice President for Health Affairs Jeffrey S. Akman
April 09, 2014

As college students deal with pressures while navigating a new environment, it is common for them to feel a sense of isolation and loneliness, says Dr. Jeffrey S. Akman, School of Medicine and Health Sciences dean, vice president for health affairs and Walter A. Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine.

Dr. Akman, a board-certified psychiatrist, discussed with George Washington Today ways to cope with these feelings and the importance of seeking help if you or someone you know is suffering.

Q: How common are depression and other mental health issues among college students?

A: Depression and other mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and alcohol and substance abuse are common problems in college students. In fact, studies have shown that roughly half of all college students will have a psychiatric disorder during college, with depression being the most common.

Q: What are some warning signs that indicate students should seek help? 

A: College is a time of enormous personal growth and, hopefully, a time when students have fun, expand their horizons and make new friends. However, college also brings with it pressure and new responsibilities. It can be a challenge to figure out how one fits into a new social scene and to develop new friends. Managing intimate relationships and developing one's identity are complicated even in the best of circumstances. And, as such, many college students also experience stress, anxiety, sadness and irritability. It's also not uncommon for college students to feel a sense of isolation and loneliness, especially in their freshman year. But for most students, these feelings pass and are not enduring.

Depression is a medical illness that has some classic signs and symptoms. These include sadness that lasts for more than just a few days, feeling hopeless, feeling worthless or excessively guilty, losing interest in social activities or withdrawing from activities that one previously enjoyed, increased crying, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and increase in alcohol or drug use. Sometimes feeling unfocused and having poor academic performance can be a sign of depression or another mental health problem. Thoughts of suicide, death and dying are important signs of depression that should lead a student to seek help immediately.

Q: What are some ways to ask for help?

A: There is no need to struggle in silence. Talk to friends, your parents or loved one about the stresses you might be experiencing. Getting support from friends and loved ones is usually a good first step, but one can also reach out to a residence hall adviser or faculty member. In addition, there are many resources in and around GW where one can receive confidential, professional help including the University Counseling Center. Furthermore, there are many excellent resources online for students who are concerned about depression, including ones found on the UCC website.

Q: Which treatments tend to be most effective in treating depression?

A: The good thing is that depression and most mental health problems respond to treatment. Some basic tips:

  • Be active and exercise.
  • Hang out with friends, socialize and don't be a hermit.
  • Stay in touch with your parents, family and friends including through Skype, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
  • Engage in healthy behaviors such as getting enough sleep and good nutrition.
  • If you smoke cigarettes, stop. There are many resources to help you quit.
  • Be careful about alcohol and drug use. 

The most common types of treatment for depression are psychotherapy and antidepressants. Psychotherapy involves talking with a mental health professional or counselor. Antidepressants are medications that have shown to affect brain chemicals that regulate mood. Each of these types of treatment can be effective. Research has shown that a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants is frequently the best treatment for depression. Talk to your counselor or doctor to find out which might be the best treatment for you.

Q: Do you have any advice for students worried there is a stigma associated with seeking treatment for depression?

A: First of all, get educated. Depression is very common and research shows that getting treatment sooner rather than later can relieve symptoms more quickly and reduce the length of time that treatment is needed. Second, it's important for college students to recognize that you are not your illness. So accept that you have a condition or a mental health problem and get help. Third, get involved. There are many organizations that are working very hard to reduce the stigma associated with depression and other mental health problems. Be part of the solution.

Q: If students are concerned about friends or classmates, what can they do?

A: The first thing to do is to talk to your friend or classmate. Listen, offer encouragement and give support. Find out if they are currently seeking help. If so, encourage them to contact their counselor, therapist or doctor. Encourage them to reach out to their parents or loved ones. Most importantly, don't feel like you have to take this on alone. Remember that we are all part of a community. Engage your friends, roommates, classmates or faculty to help you help your friend. Call your parents and get advice on how to help your classmate or friend. A range of resources are available in Foggy Bottom and on the Mount Vernon Campus. You can call the University Counseling Center's 24-hour hotline (202-994-5300) or fill out a CARE Form. Psychiatrists are also available 24/7 in the GW Hospital Emergency Room.