Is It Homesickness... or Depression?

A slew of health problems pop up on college campuses, but when it comes to mental health conditions, symptoms can look sneakily similar. (Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

The “Freshman 15” might get the most ink when it comes to health hurdles facing college students, but it’s certainly not the only problem. Mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, are increasingly being recognized as silent — and common — issues plaguing students.

Depression and homesickness are fairly common at the start of school. “Homesickness is expected in almost everybody at some point in varying degrees,” Josh Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, tells Yahoo Health. “If you don’t experience it, nothing’s wrong with you, but the somewhat abrupt change triggers emotions. You don’t have to be far from home to feel it either; students 15 miles away can experience homesickness.” As for depression? A 2011 survey of college students conducted by the American College Health Association found that roughly 30 percent of students felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some time in the past year.

The problem: Klapow says that homesickness and depression can look similar — and that one can lead to the other (although that doesn’t always happen). So how do you tell which is which — and better yet, how do you alleviate the symptoms and stop the pain? First, you have to know the signs of each.

What is Homesickness?

“Homesickness is the pain people feel leaving home — it takes different forms in different people, from mild sadness to profound grief,” Susan Matt, PhD, an expert in homesickness and a professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, tells Yahoo Health. Part of the pain boils down to feeling a loss of identity, she explains. “In your old home, you had a sense of self. When you go somewhere new, you need to create a new sense of self.”

A realization that a new place is your new “home” can also evoke strong emotions, adds Klapow. It signifies a developmental milestone. “People miss home, but miss the memories associated with home, too, in a nostalgic way,” he says. These emotions often catch young freshmen off guard. “They want to leave home so bad and even though they’ve got everything they wanted, they feel a longing for home,” he explains.

Related: 8 Surprising Reasons Young People May Get Depression

Some common homesickness symptoms: missing home, family, and friends; thinking about memories from home; and a feeling of insecurity in the new place, coupled with a desire to feel secure, says Klapow. “It’s not uncommon to feel emotionally raw or be tearful either,” he adds. Being preoccupied with thoughts of home, having a hard time focusing on what’s good and fun and new, reliving your past, crying, sadness, and even — to some degree — an irrational pessimism about the new college life, are also signs of homesickness.

Who Gets Homesick?

Sure, there are some people who “never” get homesick. (Or the “only time that they were homesick was when they were sick of home!” Matt says.) It’s impossible to predict who will experience homesickness merely from personality traits — like extroversion or introversion — or other typologies, she says. Some research and experts suggest that homesickness has to do with secure or insecure attachments with family and friends, but even that is just a theory. And while others have predicted that cell phones and Skype help lessen the blow, Matt doesn’t think that’s true: “Sometimes technology helps, but in some ways, it heightens the emotion because you see what you’re missing.”

But ultimately, being homesick is completely normal — and common. “The more I researched the topic, the more I found that most people in American history have been homesick,” says Matt. “It’s remarkably widespread. The Pilgrims felt it, explorers going West felt it.”

Part of the problem is that “it’s become a taboo emotion in modern America,” says Matt. “We tend to focus on stories of explorers and scuttle homesickness under the table.” American culture is also much more focused on the need for young people to go off to college and become independent than it used to be. People are considered babies if they need to go home or talk to their parents, Matt says. The truth of the matter though, is that for most of American history, people lived with their parents through their late 20s. “The need to move out and move on is a psychological requirement we’ve only imposed on people in that last 100 years.”

And because of that, we’re reluctant to admit that we feel homesick — which only makes the pain worse. “You feel like you’re the only one feeling it,” says Matt, who adds that this can leave you feeling wimpy and inadequate.

When it Becomes Worrisome

While homesickness is normal, it can grow to be significant enough that it interferes with your ability to function, sometimes morphing into something more serious like clinical depression, Klapow says.

“Really, you have to think about how frequent those homesickness symptoms are happening and how long they last,” he says. “Many kids experience symptoms the first few weeks and months (though sometimes even the first year) and symptoms fade over time.”

Related: The Number One Cause Of Depression — Everywhere

With depression, experts typically talk about two weeks or more where you’re feeling sad and blue most of the day every day, Klapow explains. Other signs: a lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy, sleep issues — sleeping too much or being tired all the time — difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite, and a lack of energy in general, says Klapow. “Students with homesickness can generally still be active, alert, and involved in activities.” If you find that your emotions are impacting how much you’re interacting with your new environment, that could be a sign you’re crossing over from normal toward abnormal, Klapow says. Depression, too, can be more serious with some people having thoughts that life is not worth living. (See a doctor immediately if you ever have thoughts of suicide.)

Finding Homesickness Solutions

If it’s homesickness that you’re facing, Matt says keeping this in mind can help: “It’s really comforting if you recognize that other people are experiencing it as much you are.”

“Trying to buck up is sometimes not enough,” Klapow adds. And if you visit a mental health clinic on campus or discuss your feelings with other like-minded students or faculty members, you’ll find lots of kids who are experiencing homesickness — regardless of how much they’re smiling, says Klapow. Connecting with others and realizing you’re not alone can help lessen the blow.

Another thing that can help: Anticipate the homesickness. “You’re going through an adjustment period and you’re going to have good days and bad days,” says Klapow. In fact, research shows that preventive strategies — like expecting the feelings and learning to reframe intense emotions as a reflection of love for your family — can help fight homesickness. And try to keep up with healthy habits. “A lack of sleep, a poor diet, a lack of exercise, and too much partying puts you physiologically in a weaker state, which makes you emotionally weaker, which makes your homesickness worse,” says Klapow.

As for fixing homesickness by going home, both experts agree that it’s OK. “For some people, a little dose of home is the perfect fix,” Klapow says. However, “some kids can end up missing home more.” His suggestion: If it’s feasible, and you’re missing home, go back — but make sure you’re not falling out of your college life (making friends, establishing a routine, attending class) by going home, he cautions.

Dealing with Depression Head-On

If your homesickness is so severe that you do suspect you’re starting to become depressed, it’s important to seek professional help. “My biggest fear for students suffering from homesickness is that it gets so bad that they have a hard time going to school, don’t tell anyone, and it goes on to develop into depression,” says Klapow.

The bottom line: “I always tell kids, ‘if you’re feeling so bad that you’re having a hard time going to class or functioning in your day-to-day, that’s not right. I don’t know if you have depression or not, but it’s time to go see a mental health counselor.’” Visit your college health center or tell a freshman life coordinator,

The good news: Most colleges have mental health clinics and/or Freshman life coordinators who are equipped to deal with these very issues every single day.

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