College students and depression: why is it hard to concentrate?

As part of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month, cognitive scientist and accommodations specialist, Dr Sue Wilkinson, unpacks the science behind mental health and cognition. We ask: how and why does depression affect students’ ability to concentrate in lectures and on work?

Being clinically depressed is different to feeling a bit low. Having depression can actually alter the way we think, and negatively impact our cognitive processes. If you’re concerned about mental health on campus, it’s important to understand how and why students’ studies might be affected.

Depression often occurs as a result of an imbalance in the chemicals that send messages in the brain, called neurotransmitters. As well as having an effect on our mood, a reduction in these neurotransmitters will impair the messages being sent between neurons, which will impair our brain’s ability to perform many cognitive functions.


Depression and Cognition

When people have clinical depression, it can impact on cognition in many ways.

We may find it difficult to make even simple decisions such as what food to have for dinner, or where to go for a walk, and we may struggle to remember either small details such as what we did at the weekend, or more significant details of a major life event.

The speed at which we are able to process information is likely to be much slower, as well as us having less effective mechanisms for organizing information, which will make it challenging for us to retrieve information we have learned. It may impact on our ability to carry out routine everyday tasks, such as making appointments or managing our finances. In short, college students with depression may feel more dependent on others to carry out aspects of their studies.

Certainly, depression is likely to impair our concentration, making it challenging for us to focus and stay on task.

In fact, “diminished ability to concentrate” is listed as one of the symptoms of depression in the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the official manual that is used to diagnose all mental illnesses).


Studying with Depression

If you’re looking into mental health on campus, you may recognize a series of struggles that college students with depression face.

  • Students with depression will struggle to concentrate in lectures and seminars, as well as on their written assignments and projects.
  • They may find it difficult to get started with their work as their ability to concentrate on academic study will be impaired.
  • They will certainly have difficulty multitasking, which is needed in lectures and seminars in order to be efficient in taking notes.

So why do our emotions have such an influence on our ability to concentrate?

The two different areas in the brain that control a) our emotions (the amygdala), and b) our ability to concentrate and pay attention (the cerebral cortex), are strongly connected, and messages that are constantly sent from our ‘emotional centre’ to our ‘attentional centre’, can play havoc when we are trying to concentrate. This means that our mood and emotions can hugely influence the extent to which we are able to concentrate and focus on tasks.

Struggling to concentrate, remember, and process information will make learning and studying very difficult.

This can be a result of the depression itself interfering with the brain’s attentional centre, as discussed, but also the medications that are taken to control the symptoms of depression. Antidepressant medication is primarily focussed on improving mood, by altering the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, but there is little evidence that these drugs are successful in improving cognitive functioning. They may even have side effects that further impair our attention and concentration. Fatigue is another symptom of depression, and as we all know, when we are tired it is much harder to concentrate and focus our attention.

While there are no direct treatments that will solve the concentration problems caused by depression, there are strategies and techniques that can be employed to help these learners minimize the negative impact of these issues (e.g. assistive software, technology, study strategies).

If you’re worried about mental health on campus there are plenty of resources that you or your students can access. Check back into our blog to read advice from experts in the Sonocent Community about the support every institution can offer for well-rounded mental health care.

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Published by

Dr Sue Wilkinson

Dr. Sue Wilkinson is a cognitive psychologist, Senior Fellow of the UK’s Higher Education Academy and Director at NeuroDigital Consulting Ltd. With 10 years’ experience in Higher Education and 4 years working with students with disabilities, she’s developed a particular expertise in neurodiversity in education, its effect on cognition, and the use of assistive technology to support learning.

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