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Common symptoms of depression
The causes of depression
What you can do about depression
Depression resources at UT
Depression reading list

How to know if you are depressed

Depression has been called "the common cold of mental health." We all know that everybody feels down or pessimistic from time to time. That's normal.

Many people wonder, "When does feeling down cross the line into depression?" That's a tough question, because it's not always an either-or kind of thing. In considering whether you need help with depression, it might be useful to consider the following three dimensions: frequency, severity and duration.

Three Dimensions of Depression

  1. Frequency: How often do you feel down or depressed? Every day? Three times a week? Once a month? All the time?
  2. Severity: How bad is it? Do you feel suicidal? Totally hopeless and stuck in a dark hole? Or just kind of lousy and negative?
  3. Duration: How long does it last? Until you see your partner? Until you go home for the weekend? Just a couple of hours? Does it drag on for days, weeks, or even months? Have you felt somewhat depressed your whole life?

Common symptoms of depression

  • sleeping much more or much less than usual
  • eating much more or much less than usual
  • feeling fatigued, lacking energy
  • frequent headaches, stomachaches, or otherwise inexplicable aches and pains


  • diminished interest in and enjoyment of previously pleasurable activities, such as going out with friends, sports, hobbies, sex, etc.
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • neglecting responsibilities and personal appearance


  • depressed mood-this can mean feeling down, irritable, pessimistic, guilty, anxious, empty, etc.
  • suicidal thoughts
  • feeling hopeless and helpless
  • feelings of worthlessness

The causes of depression

Sometimes we know exactly why we're depressed -- such as when we've experienced a difficult breakup or the death of a close friend or family member. Other times, however, the reasons for our depression are not quite as clear. There may not be one cause, but a variety of factors that accumulate over time and lead us to feel demoralized and depressed. And sometimes, with factors like low self-esteem or anxiety, it may be almost impossible to say which causes which. Do low self-esteem and anxiety cause depression? Or does depression cause low self-esteem and anxiety? Or both?

Possible Contributing Factors to Depression

  • Environmental: Cramped living conditions, bad roommate situation, money problems, car problems, holidays you're not looking forward to, having a tough time with classes, too much pressure on you, feeling helpless to change your environment, loss of something significant (a job, a dream, etc.), being victimized (assault, robbery, rape, etc.).
  • Interpersonal: Relationship problems or breakup, conflicts with family members, death of a significant person in your life, the anniversary of a loss, feeling like people are taking advantage of you, unresolved anger or guilt, feeling helpless to make changes in important relationships.
  • Physical/Medical/Biological: Genetic predisposition (depression runs in the family), chemical imbalances, dealing with illness or infection, sleep deprivation, chronic anxiety.
  • Diet/Exercise: Getting by on fast food, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and other relatively non-nutritious items, substance abuse, lack of exercise.
  • Thought Patterns: Self-criticism, pessimistic thinking, expecting the worst.
  • Spiritual/Existential/Philosophical: Doubts about the meaning of life, questions about your own religious beliefs, a sense that you're somehow missing out on your true calling or that you're not being true to yourself, your dreams, your beliefs.

What you can do about depression

Some Self-Help Options
There are actually a lot of things you can do about depression. The most important thing is that you do something positive and constructive.

You might start by getting yourself some paper and a pen and make headings for all the factors previously described: Environmental, Interpersonal, Physical/Medical, etc.

Make a list of any problems, concerns, or negative feelings you have that relate to each of the areas. It also helps to identify which of the areas are sources of strength, support, and positive feelings.

Depression can leave you feeling helpless and out of control of your life, your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The goal is to get to the point where you feel like you can do something to improve your situation and life. So any changes you can make for the better, though they may not "fix" the depression or make it go away immediately, are definitely worth doing.

As you break your concerns down into smaller, more manageable contributing parts, some solutions may become clear to you. For instance, you may realize that relationship problems are a key contributor to your depression, and decide that assertiveness or communications training would really help remedy that situation. Or you might notice that for you the symptoms are largely physical and choose to get a medical checkup to rule out other possible problems. Perhaps parental pressures and expectations have been burdening you and you'll decide to have that long, honest talk with your parents.

Go over each area and do your own self-assessment, then write down what you think it would take to help the situation. Draw from the following list to come up with possible solutions. This list includes strategies that have proven beneficial to people struggling with feelings of depression.

  • Develop a healthier, more balanced diet. Junk food, caffeine, alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes can all have a negative impact on your mood.
  • Get regular exercise and sufficient sleep. For exercise, walking is fine. The times when you don't feel like exercising may be when you need to do it most. Cutting yourself short on sleep can really contribute to a downward spiral in other areas.
  • Develop stress-management and time-management skills. These will be very helpful in surviving school and keeping yourself from feeling overwhelmed.
  • Check in with how you're feeling regularly. Learn to be aware of your feelings; don't let them build up to the point where they overwhelm you, bring you down, and cause even bigger problems in your life.
  • Develop and use a support system. Everyone goes through difficult periods in their lives. If you're experiencing one of these times, don't be afraid to talk about it with someone you care about. Let him or her know what you need: "I don't need you to fix my problems, I just need somebody to listen" or "I just want to vent and blow off some steam."

What If Self-Help Is Not Enough?

Many of the suggestions provided above are things you can do on your own. For many of us, though, it's difficult to get ourselves going, and we may prefer to seek the help of a professional counselor to help us move past that stuck point. If you have been stuck for a long time, or if you are at the point where you are seriously neglecting important aspects of your life or even thinking about suicide, it is imperative that you seek professional help.


A professional can assist you in getting the help you need, whether that is counseling/psychotherapy, anti-depressant medications, or a combination of the two. For many people, just being able to talk about their problems and get some support can be very helpful. In other cases, medication can be helpful or even necessary for the person to "lift the cloud" and function better.

Medications and Psychiatric Services

Remember, you don't have to live like this. Depressive feelings are common, and we have given you some ideas about how to work on them yourself. If the depression feels too frequent, too overwhelming, or lasts too long (remember frequency, duration, and severity), it's time to seek professional help, either at the Counseling and Mental Health Center or from a qualified professional in the community.

Short-Term Individual Counseling

Group Counseling

Short-Term Individual Counseling

CMHC Crisis Line

Remember, depression IS treatable.

Resources at UT

Counseling and Mental Health Center: 512-471-3515
CMHC Crisis Line
(24 hours/day, 7 days/week): 512-471-CALL (2255) (UT Students Only)
Disability and Access (D&A): 512-471-6259
University Health Services: 512-475-6877

Reading list

Breaking the Patterns of Depression by Michael D. Yapko (New York, Doubleday, 1997). (Available at UT Libraries)

The Depression Workbook: A Guide for Living With Depression and Manic Depression by Mary Ellen Copeland and Wayne London (Oakland: New Harbinger, 1992).

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1980). (Available at UT Libraries; also at the Longhorn Wellness Center.)

The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1989). (Available at the Longhorn Wellness Center.)

Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1990) (Available at the Longhorn Wellness Center.)

You Are Not Alone: Words of Experience and Hope for the Journey Through Depression by Julia Thorne, Larry Bethstein (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).

Mind over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by D. Greenberger & C.A. Padesky (New York: The Guilford Press, 1995). (Available at the Longhorn Wellness Center.)

Transforming Depression: Healing the Soul through Creativity by David H. Rosen (Maine: Nicolas-Hays, 2002).

Where can I find help?

UT's Counseling & Mental Health Center (CMHC)
Call 512-471-3515 for information on setting up an appointment with a counselor.
CMHC also offers the CMHC Crisis Line: 512-471-CALL for a telephone counselor.

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