Depression and Loneliness

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the symptoms of depression
  • Define loneliness and ways to combat it


Depression is a common but serious mood disorder that’s more than just a feeling of being down in the dumps or blue for a few days. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks.

If you have been experiencing some of the following signs and symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks, you may be suffering from depression:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • irritability
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • decreased energy or fatigue
  • moving or talking more slowly
  • feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • appetite and/or weight changes
  • thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
  • aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Current research suggests that depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. It usually starts between the ages of fifteen and thirty, and is much more common in women. Parents can also get postpartum depression after the birth of a baby. Some people get seasonal affective disorder in the winter, when there is less natural sunlight. Depression is part of bipolar disorder.

Even the most severe cases of depressions can be treated. The earlier that treatment can begin, the more effective it is. Depression is usually treated with medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.

There are days that you will feel down, especially when the demands of college get to you. These feelings are normal and will go away. If you are feeling low, try to take a break from the pressures of college and do something you enjoy. Spend time with friends, exercise, read a good book, listen to music, watch a movie, call a friend, talk to your family, or anything else that makes you feel good. If you feel depressed for two weeks, or the feeling keeps coming back, you should talk to a counselor in the health services center. They see lots of students who are anxious, stressed, or depressed at college.

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Most people experience occasional loneliness, and it’s an especially common experience among first-time college students, who find themselves in an unfamiliar environment with a completely new social scene. Loneliness isn’t necessarily about being alone—you can be surrounded by people and still feel alone. It’s the feeling of being alone that counts, along with feeling empty, unwanted, or isolated.

Emery Bergmann depicts this common phenomena in a video she made about transitioning to college when she was a freshman at Cornell University. The video went viral and she eventually wrote the article “Advice from a Formerly Lonely College Student” that was published in the New York Times.

It’s important to distinguish the difference between being alone versus feeling lonely. Having solitude and enjoying one’s own company is a different experience from loneliness. It can be very useful, productive, and affirming to have the time to oneself to get things done and to reflect. Here are some examples of how one may feel in each state[1]:

Loneliness vs. Solitude
I can’t stand being alone. I enjoy alone time and look forward to it.
I feel sad and anxious when I’m by myself. Alone time is relaxing and I feel like I can recharge.
I feel worse when I’m by myself. Alone time prepares me to interact with others and better enjoy those moments.
My brain feels tired from ruminating over mundane details or events when I’m alone. I can clear my thoughts and feel peaceful during time I set aside for myself.

Zaid Dahhaj gives insight into how you can transform negative thoughts about alone time to more positive ones in the article, “Here’s Why You’re Confusing Alone Time with Loneliness.” He suggests you can create a love for alone time by embracing the present moment, practicing alone time, being compassionate with yourself, learning mindfulness meditation, and doing things you enjoy.

In the following Ted Talk, Sherrie Turkle describes how, in this age of near-constant digital connection, loneliness is a challenge that faces us all:

You can view the transcript for “Connected, but alone? | Sherry Turkle” here (opens in new window).

If you’re feeling lonely, try taking Turkle’s advice and start a conversation with someone. College is a great place to meet new people and develop new and interesting relationships. Others in college are new, just like you, and will welcome the chance to connect with and get to know another classmate. Try joining a campus interest group or club, play a team sport, or just ask another student if they’d like to meet for coffee or to study.

If feelings of loneliness persist, and especially if you also feel depressed, you should get help from a counselor or health services.

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depression: distinct from passing sadness, this is a condition characterized by persistent feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, and irritability, which can be accompanied by physical symptoms such as fatigue, body aches, and dietary issues

loneliness: distinct from enjoyable solitude, this condition is characterized by feeling feeling empty, unwanted, or isolated


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  1. "Helping College Students Combat Loneliness." EduMed, 14 Apr. 2020,