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December 9, 2010

View From Outside the Classroom

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Give depression a voice

This fall, students, faculty and staff called attention to Pitt’s third annual depression awareness campaign by wearing black T-shirts that said “Talk About It” in bright green letters.

Because this issue is so important, the Talk About It committee is expanding its campaign to a year-round effort with a guest speaker and other special events during the spring semester.

The goal of the campaign is to help people recognize symptoms of depression and seek assistance if they, or someone they know, suffer from this relatively common condition.

As the director of the University Counseling Center, I have been gratified to see so many people working together to educate others who may not even know they have a serious problem. Depression is often a hidden condition that goes untreated, sometimes because of the social stigma that can be attached to a mental illness. Left unchecked, depression can have a very negative effect on a person’s relationships, academic or job performance and daily living. Depression can be consuming and debilitating and, in extreme cases, can lead to suicide.

Depression is one of the top concerns among students nationwide. Conservative estimates are that one in four people are directly impacted by some form of depression during their lifetime, and most people know somebody who suffers from this biological condition that oftentimes gets triggered by life pressures, such as the demands of college.

Depression is treatable. For some people, simply having the right support system and coping mechanisms are all that are needed; for others, more involved medical treatment is necessary. Getting help is an appropriate response, not an indication of weakness or failure.

In addition to wearing the highly visible T-shirts this fall, members of Pitt’s depression awareness committee, comprised of faculty, staff and student leaders from the Division of Student Affairs, as well as community partners at LEAD Pittsburgh (Leading Education and Awareness for Depression), distributed information cards to encourage people to use the resources available, including the University Counseling Center. The committee recently showed the Academy Award-winning movie “American Beauty,” in which a middle-class man’s depression leads to a mid-life crisis and many poor decisions. The film was followed by a discussion about depression.

The group also recently hosted David Brent, professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and epidemiology at Pitt. He directs the Advanced Center for Intervention and Services Research for Early Onset Mood and Anxiety Disorders and a suicide prevention/intervention program. He shared some of his research findings, compiled during more than 25 years of extensive work with families and friends of people who attempted or completed suicide. He explained how to recognize symptoms of depression and potential suicide, and what students, faculty and staff might be able to do to help people get the support they need.

His early research revealed that almost all of the young people who killed themselves told somebody about their plans, so getting people to talk is extremely important.

There are many common indicators of depression that faculty or staff could detect, including students who miss classes regularly or sleep in class; become irritable or anxious too easily; have poor hygiene; express hopelessness, worthlessness or thoughts of dying or killing themselves in papers or verbally. If multiple symptoms exist, and persist over an extended period of time, there’s a strong likelihood of depression.

What if a faculty or staff member notices these types of behaviors? First, they can consult with our staff professionals at the Counseling Center, explain what they have observed, and we will help them determine steps that should be taken. They also could talk directly with the individual they are concerned about and encourage them to contact our office. We’ve had faculty members call us while the student was in their office, and that is a great way to ensure that the student gets help.

If students are unwilling to call us, they can call the re:solve Crisis Network (1/888-796-8226). Or they can simply walk in to our office, or the re:solve office, 333 North Braddock Ave., Point Breeze.

Because some faculty members have contacted our office about students, we have been able to intervene and provide assistance on numerous occasions.

I agree with Brent’s advice about being empathetic with a student or colleague who may need help. Saying things like, “I am concerned about you,” and/or “Maybe you are bearing a burden, or suffering, and somebody could help,” and asking “Would you be willing to see an expert?” can be more effective than bluntly stating: “I think you should call the counseling center.” If a person still expresses reluctance, asking “What is preventing you from seeking help?” could identify barriers and help them overcome their reluctance. Saying “I would appreciate it if you would go” and offering to go with them, or call with them, also could make a difference.

Anxiety is the No. 1 issue we see in college students, and anxiety can lead to depression. However, it is important for people not only to understand the symptoms of anxiety and depression, but also to know what types of activities can help prevent these conditions from escalating.  We want to promote positive mental health and help individuals manage stress so that it doesn’t become a problem. That’s why we created the Stress Free Zone in the lower level of the William Pitt Union, where students can engage in a variety of activities to “de-stress.”

We need faculty, staff and students to help us expand the campaign by wearing the Give Depression a Voice T-shirts or wristbands and distributing information. If you want to get involved, contact Shawn Brooks, associate dean of students, 648-1200 or

James Cox is director of the University Counseling Center. He can be reached at

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