Correlates of Irritability in College Students With Depressive Symptoms

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Depression is a prevalent psychiatric disorder associated with significant personal and societal burden. There is accumulating evidence for the presence of a subtype of depression characterized by the presence of irritability that is associated with increased morbidity, risk for suicidal ideation, and functional impairments in adults. Little is known about the features of depressive symptoms with and without irritability among young adults in college. The primary aim of this study was to characterize the presentation of college students with depressive symptoms and irritability. Two-hundred eighty-seven undergraduate college students with depressive symptoms with and without irritability were compared across several psychiatric and functional outcome variables. Independent samples t-tests or logistic regressions were conducted for each outcome variable using the irritability item of the Beck Depression Inventory as a dichotomous grouping variable. Analyses were conducted separately for the men and the women. Both male and female students with depressive symptoms and severe irritability reported a greater severity of depressive symptoms compared with their peers with no or mild irritability. In the women, the presence of irritability was associated with greater symptoms of anxiety, whereas in the men, it was associated with increased likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors, including compulsive use of alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription drugs. The male and female college students with depressive symptoms with and without irritability did not differ on severity of suicidal ideation, hopelessness, or cognitive functioning. The findings from this study suggest that depressive symptoms and irritability may characterize a subtype of college students who have a greater symptom burden and with the potential need for more aggressive and prompt treatment.

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