An overview of an oft-misunderstood mental illness.
Depression is an illness that affects many areas of a person’s life, such as relationships with friends and family, performance at work and school, and everyday activities like eating and sleeping. Many people will experience symptoms of depression at some point in their lives, but the difference between feeling a little depressed and having depression is how long you feel those symptoms. Doctors and counselors diagnose depression after a person feels symptoms for at least two weeks. Most of the time depression begins around ages 20 to 30, but a person of any age can experience depression. At times depression comes about after a difficult event, like the death of a loved one, a traumatic experience, or other major life changes. Other times depression does not seem to have a source and may appear to come out of nowhere. Some of the symptoms of depression include:
- Negative feelings like sadness, guilt, and worry
- Low self-esteem
- Hopelessness for the future
- Difficulty feeling excitement or pleasure for things that were previously pleasurable
- Problems concentrating
- Poor memory or forgetfulness
- Problems sleeping, which may mean sleeping too much or too little
- Changes in appetite, such as wanting to eat more than usual or having no appetite
- Low energy
- Thoughts of suicide or harming yourself
Who Does Depression Affect?
Depression can come about for a number of reasons and studies show that 1 in 4 people will experience depression at some point in their lives. There are several different explanations for why people become depressed, and different causes may apply to different people.
For some depression is genetic, meaning that genes are passed on from a person’s parents or other family members, making them more likely to become depressed. Stress has also been linked to depression. Experiencing intense stress for a long time, called chronic stress, can put people at high risk for depression. This can be especially true for someone who is also genetically predisposed. Even changes in the brain like traumatic head injuries can spark depression.
Depression can also be caused by difficult events, like trauma. Being in a car accident, experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or the death of a loved one can put a person at risk of having strong negative feelings. While it is normal to initially feel sad or upset after a difficult event, if these feelings persist for more than two weeks then a person may have developed depression.
How Does Depression Affect People Differently?
Depression does not discriminate against age, gender, or ethnicity. While many people experience depression, it can look different from person to person. Research has found that men and women sometimes differ in how they present with depression. Some of these differences are:
- Men are more likely to use drugs and alcohol to cope with depression
- Women are more likely to feel depressed by stressful events
- Men tend to hide their depression from family and friends
- Women are more likely to also have eating disorders with depression
- Women may become depressed after giving birth to a child, which is called Postpartum Depression
Depression may also affect children differently than adults. Children may seem more irritable, dependent, and clingy when they are feeling depressed. They may have problems separating from parents or other caregivers. Their grades and interest in activities like sports may also suffer. These are important signs to be aware of, especially since children may find it difficult to express how they feel.
Treatment for Depression
Some medical doctors and psychiatrists will prescribe medications for depression. There are several different medications available to treat depression. Unfortunately most medications have side effects so you should always speak with your doctor before taking any prescription drugs.
Another form of treatment for depression is therapy. One form of therapy that is especially helpful in treating depression is cognitive behavioral therapy. Also called CBT for short, it is based on the idea that a person’s mood is affected by his or her thoughts about the self and the world. CBT’s goal is to help people identify their unhelpful thoughts and create new, healthier thoughts.
CBT helps depressed people understand why the way that they think causes and maintains their depression. One common cognitive distortion, or way of thinking, that many people with depression have is called “catastrophizing.” In CBT catastrophizing refers to a person’s tendency to always expect the worst. For example, a person with depression may say “there’s no point in studying for this exam because I will always fail.” A CBT therapist would help this person recognize this pattern and change this negative thought.
When Should I Seek Help?
Depression may look different from person to person, and you may wonder when a good time is for you, a family member, or friend to seek help. Here are 3 signs that it is time to seek help for depression:
- If symptoms have lasted for over two weeks it is time to seek help. When you experience a difficult event, like the death of someone close to you, it is normal to feel sad. This is a normal reaction to a difficult event, called grief. If your feelings continue to be strong after a period of time and/or get worse, then it is time to seek outside help.
- If your symptoms start to impact many areas of your life then it is time to seek help. Maybe you initially felt depressed but were able to go to work, care for your family, and take care of yourself. After a period of time this may become more difficult and you might start missing work, neglecting your relationships, and not eating or sleeping well. When your depression starts to affect your relationships and your ability to function in your daily life then it is time to seek help.
- If you are resorting to unhealthy ways to cope with your depression, like using drugs or alcohol, then it is time to seek help. You may want to numb what you are feeling by using these things, but this will cause more problems down the road. It is best to seek dual diagnosis treatment, which means you will be treated for your substance use and your depression at the same time.
Where Can I Get Help?
Getting help is the first step in recovery from depression. Often times it is the hardest and change can be difficult. If you or someone you know is ready to seek help there are ways to reach out:
- You can speak with your medical doctor or OB/GYN about different options. They may prescribe you medications or refer you to a therapist. A psychiatrist is also a doctor who specializes in mental health and can offer you medication and possibly therapy.
- You can reach out to a therapist directly to schedule a session to talk about your depression. Psychologists, social workers, counselors, and other mental health professionals will be able to assist you.
- If you would like intensive treatment, you can contact a treatment center directly. Inpatient treatment centers allow you to live in the facility while you are getting help. If you seek outpatient treatment then you will attend group and individual therapy 2-4 times per week but stay in your own home.
Why Depression is Dangerous
Depression can be uncomfortable and frustrating, but if left untreated can also be dangerous. Some of the serious consequences of depression include:
- Some people with depression may use unhealthy coping skills, like drugs and alcohol. This can be dangerous, especially when different drugs are combined with one another. The consequences of drug and alcohol use can include relationship problems, legal issues, and in some cases overdose and/or death.
- Depression may cause some people to want to hurt themselves, such as through cutting or burning. This is dangerous and can cause serious consequences and long-term health issues.
- The most dangerous symptom of depression is suicide. Some people that feel depressed have thoughts of hurting themselves and may act on these thoughts. Each year 40,000 people in the United States take their lives by suicide. The majority of these people have never sought help. Men and women of every age and ethnicity are impacted by suicide, and the rate of suicide among adolescents is increasing at an alarming rate. The highest risk group for suicide is men between the ages of 25 and 65. If you feel suicidal, have a plan, and intend to go through with it, then call 9-1-1 for help immediately.
Depression is a serious medical condition and should not be ignored. The good news is that depression is treatable, often with a combination of therapy, medication, and emphasis on lifestyle changes.
Psychology Today is an excellent place to find a good therapist in your area. Go here.
If you’d rather not see someone in person, professional counseling is available online on several different sites including TalkSpace and Online-Therapy.com which is actually offering a 20% discount to new members.