By Jessica Tanaka
Lack of sleep, loss of appetite, self-destructive behavior and constant thoughts of suicide are not what people think happens on an LDS mission. Yet this was part of the mission experience for Pete Hanselmann, a BYU student from Indianapolis. He was diagnosed with depression while serving his mission and came home after only six months in the field.
A little over one year later, Hanselmann said he”s ready to share his story to help other students who may be having similar experiences.
“I had mild symptoms of depression before the big episode on my mission when people could see I needed help,” Hanselmann said. “I just didn”t do anything about it because of the negative connotation associated with depression.”
People act like depression is a terrible thing, but it”s only a physical malady caused by a chemical malfunction in the body, just like hemophilia or leprosy, he said.
Hanselmann said society”s negative stereotype about depression is harmful because it causes people with depressive symptoms to feel hesitant about seeking help. He said he wishes he had received help for his depression earlier.
“You should ignore what people think and do what”s going to help you,” he said. “It”ll make your life better. It”s not worth living without help if the help can make your life bearable.”
For over a year, Hanselmann is taking medication and receiving help from therapists.
“I feel a huge difference,” he said. “But every now and then I can tell I feel worse again. It”s more than just feeling sad or having a bad day. But at least now it”s easier because I know if I wait it out, it”ll be okay.”
Hanselmann used to feel so depressed that he wasn”t sure if he would ever come out of it.
“Now, even in the worst times, it”s not as bad as before I got treated,” he said.
Dr. David Smart, clinical professor of counseling psychology and associate director of the BYU Counseling and Career Center, said many BYU students come to the counseling center for help with depression. Sixty-five percent of the students who come in to the counseling center report some problems with depression.
Depression is the fourth most commonly marked concern among students surveyed at the center, Smart said.
According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, depressives tend to experience a loss of sleep, appetite and motivation. Depression also causes constant feelings of failure, guilt and discouragement. One symptom of extreme depression is persistent thoughts of suicide.
“People that have depression tend to think too negatively and think too critically of themselves,” Smart said. “They tend to misjudge the world and themselves and get into this sort of habitual pattern to downplay their positive characteristics.”
Competition is one thing that may contribute to depression in BYU students, Smart said.
“A lot of students are used to being really successful in high school, and when they come to BYU the level of competition steps up a notch,” he said.
Smart said a pattern among BYU students is to be perfectionists, or they have high expectations of themselves, and then get depressed if they can”t be the best student.
Though the pattern is plain, the causes of depression are still a mystery, Smart said. The current theory is that depression is a biological issue due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, he said. This means that some people are genetically predisposed to depression and are biologically more at risk if they have a family history of depression.
“It”s thought that one contribution to depression is often some kind of loss, such as loss of a relationship, which is a common issue for college students,” Smart said.
The important thing for students to know is they can come in to the counseling center and get help or ask questions about depression, he said.
Smart said everybody has bad days, however, if symptoms persist for a long period of time and are exaggerated, then a clinician would be likely to render a diagnosis of depression.
“But the diagnosis of depression, I think, always remains somewhat subjective,” Smart said.
Although depression is fairly common, the good news is treatments are effective, he said. Treatments for depression can include psychotherapy with a therapist, anti-depressant medication or a combination of both.
“Depression is a pretty optimistic diagnosis,” Smart said. “There really are a lot of things that can be done for people with depression. It really can be treated through medication or talking therapies.”