Depression is a mental health disorder that affects over 17 million Americans every year.
Depression is more than just a feeling of sadness or loss; it is a clinical illness that requires treatment for suffering individuals to overcome its symptoms.
Depression can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or educational background.
Because its symptoms can be misinterpreted, depression often goes unrecognized and untreated, leaving many people to suffer alone.
Other Names for Depression
The historical name for depression was melancholia, referring to the melancholy mood that sufferers exhibited.
During the time of Hippocrates, a person with melancholia was said to have “black blood,” in that they were prone to dark moods and mental instability.
Today, the understanding of depression as a mood disorder has evolved with the education of the public and the knowledge of it as a clinical illness.
Many people refer to the illness as simply “depression,” a term that has been used to describe anything from a sad time period to becoming severely compromised.
True depression that requires treatment is referred to as “clinical depression,” and is diagnosed by a healthcare provider when a patient is exhibiting symptoms.
A condition that is similar to clinical depression is a state called dysthymia. A person with dysthymia will exhibit symptoms that are similar to depression but are not as severe. Dysthymia appears as a mild depressive state that is ongoing over a period of at least two years. Because its symptoms are milder than clinical depression, dysthymia can be difficult to diagnose, resulting in a chronic struggle.
Symptoms of Depression
Depression is associated with many symptoms, several of which involve feelings of negativity. Because of this, depression can become misunderstood as simply a bad mood for the suffering person. Many people dealing with depression are told to “snap out of it,” as if they will recover by following trite advice.
A person with depression may exhibit some or all of the following symptoms
- Ongoing feelings of sadness or despair
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Changes in weight, including weight loss or weight gain
- Changes in sleep patterns, exhibited by insomnia or sleeping too much
- Thoughts of suicide or feelings of wanting to harm oneself
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Difficulties with concentrating or making decisions
A person struggling with depression may live daily with feelings of sadness or guilt that is difficult to explain to others. They may feel as if no one understands their situation, and they may not understand why they are feeling sad themselves. The sadness and guilt may be accompanied by anxiety, such as irrational fears that something devastating may happen to a loved one. The person may also feel lonely, even when surrounded by friends or family, as their personal feelings of sadness can be isolating.
The depressed person may feel hopeless about the future, as if there is nothing to look forward to. Events that may typically be exciting or fun become difficult to enjoy or require more energy than the suffering person wants to give, leading to feelings of despair. The person struggling with depression has trouble anticipating future events or feeling excitement.
Depression can be exhibited by weight loss or weight gain. A suffering person may manage his or her feelings of sadness in various ways, such as withholding food, which leads to weight loss. Not letting him or herself eat can give a depressed person a feeling of control, even if it is only in one area of his or her life.
Depression can also cause a loss of appetite, where there is no desire to eat. Alternatively, some people turn to food for comfort, and eating provides a small amount of consolation in the midst of illness. Weight gain comes from overeating due to boredom or simply as a comfort measure.
The depressed person may exhibit changes in sleep habits, resulting in loss of sleep or sleeping too much. Insomnia is a state of being awake during a time when a person wants to be sleeping. Depression can keep a person up at night when the rest of the household is in bed, leading to further feelings of isolation and irritability over lack of sleep.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the depressed person that sleeps too much, or has trouble waking up and getting out of bed. This can cause a disruption of the typical schedule of daily activities, such as keeping a job or caring for others.
A particularly dangerous symptom of depression can be thoughts of suicide or feelings of wanting to harm oneself. The depressed person may have suicidal ideation for various reasons. He or she may feel burdensome to loved ones and would like to ease that burden. He or she may imagine their funeral as a means of envisioning others caring for their memory.
Thoughts of harming oneself can include any activities that may cause self-harm, whether or not the person actually follows through. The depressed person may fantasize about situations where they are harmed in some way.
Depression may be exhibited as a loss of interest in typical activities that once would have brought pleasure. There may be a lack of interest in hobbies or pastimes, and a depressed person may find no pleasure in sexual activity. Free time often results in boredom or sleeping instead of spending time enjoying leisure pursuits.
The depressed person may suffer from some anxiety and making a decision can be difficult in that he or she cannot determine what the final outcome may be. There may be feelings of confusion for making any choices and he or she may refrain from making decisions, even those that may be considered minor to others. There may be a feeling of constant distraction, causing difficulties in conversation or concentrating on any particular activity.
Symptoms of fatigue and feeling extremely tired are further signs of depression. Managing negative feelings, eating less, and insomnia can all contribute to fatigue. Additionally, the depressed person may complain of a lack of energy, leading to further problems with motivation or interest in daily activities.
Causes of Depression
Depression can occur from a variety of situations, depending on the circumstances of the person that is diagnosed. Various factors within a person’s life can affect how they manage their feelings and if a particular situation is extremely difficult, depression may follow.
The causes of depression may stem from one or a combination of the following
- Illness or medical complications
- Major life changes
- Grief or loss situations
- A hormone imbalance
Relationships with spouses, parents, and friends can be uplifting, but when they are strained by change or misunderstanding, negative feelings can occur. If the relationship difficulty is ongoing, affected people may begin to feel depressed due to the increase in energy needed to manage the situation or the damaging feelings that may be involved.
Depression may follow a time of illness or use of some medications. An illness that results in a person losing time at their job or the ability to spend time with others may lead to depression due to isolation. Additionally, complicated illnesses may lead to financial difficulties, a situation that can cause anxiety; or a chronic illness can lead to feelings of hopelessness, in that the suffering person may feel they will never be fully healed.
Major life changes, both positive and negative, can lead to depression. Many people experience a letdown after anticipating a particular event, which leads to depression over the current circumstances.
For example, a mother that adopts a new baby after waiting for over a year to bring the child home may feel depressed after the transition due to overwhelming feelings of new responsibility. Life changes such as birth, marriage, job changes, divorce, or relocating all can cause depression due to the large amount of adjustment that is required for the situation.
Loss of a loved one can cause feelings of depression within a person, particularly if the loss was someone close. Facing life without the person, whether through death or estrangement, can feel overwhelming for the depressed person who may feel lonely and isolated. He or she may wonder how to face life alone, leading to feelings of grief and hopelessness.
Some people suffer from depression due to an imbalance in the chemical composition of the brain. The brain contains several types of neurotransmitters, which provide a connection between brain activity and the body.
During depression, there is a difference in these neurotransmitters. When there is an imbalance of these chemicals in the brain, a depressed person does not have the energy or the ability to function as well as they would in a balanced state.
It is unclear whether certain people are prone to this chemical imbalance genetically, whether the imbalance occurs as a result of a stressful event, or both. The chemical imbalance is a cause of depression, but may occur in isolation of a specific event.
Risk Factors for Depression
Depression can happen to anyone, but there are some risk factors that will increase the likelihood of it affecting a particular person. Depression can be related to the causes of the illness. Persons with large amounts of stress in their lives can become depressed if the stress is not managed appropriately.
Experiencing multiple changes in a short period of time can cause depression, as well as grieving the loss of a loved one. People that undergo treatment for a medical condition are also at greater risk for depression. A person that has suffered a traumatic event, even if it has taken place in their past, may live for many years before succumbing to depression.
Research has shown that there is a genetic component related to depression. Immediate family members that have suffered with depression are more likely to have a relative that also suffers. A family history of depression does not always pre-dispose a person to the illness, and some people suffer from depression where there has been no family history.
Depression can be successfully managed and its symptoms minimized with education and self care. While it may not be possible to completely prevent depression, persons suffering can recognize the symptoms associated with the illness and take steps to manage their disease.
Considering potential risk factors for depression is the first step of preventing it from becoming an overwhelming illness.
Managing stress levels and taking control of health by eating properly, drinking plenty of water, and maintaining an exercise routine may help prevent some of the severity of depression.
Some people have been helped by taking a daily multivitamin to maintain a balance of electrolytes of the body in order to feel their best. Recognizing symptoms at the earliest occurrence and being willing to seek help when needed is the best method of prevention.
Depression is diagnosed by a healthcare provider or a mental health practitioner. Diagnosis should be done by a professional with experience in the area of mood disorders and who understands the symptoms of depression. A doctor may spend time with a patient and take a full history to determine if there have been major changes or stressful events in the person’s recent past.
They may ask about the mental health of family members to determine if there may be a genetic connection. They should also review the symptoms that the patient with depression is experiencing, and provide help when necessary. For example, if a doctor is talking with a depressed patient about feelings of hopelessness, they should discuss any suicidal ideas.
Diagnosis of depression leads to treatment, but only if the patient is willing to seek counsel from a physician.
Treatment Options for Depression
Clinical depression is a treatable disease and there are various options available for treatment for the depressed person.
Depending on the severity of symptoms, many people are helped by counseling with a licensed therapist where they can discuss their feelings and devise a plan for managing their symptoms.
If a person is struggling with depression due to a traumatic event or major life change, talking through feelings associated with the event can provide a release and restore some positive feelings of hope for the depressed person.
Some people choose to use alternative therapies as a means of home remedies to treat their depression. A common herbal supplement that is used to treat mild depression is St. John’s Wort, taken in tablet form or steeped in tea.
St. John’s Wart
St. John’s Wort has frequently been used by depression sufferers, although it is undetermined exactly how the herbal remedy works to improve symptoms. It can be bought over the counter at health food stores or in many grocery stores.
Patients taking St. John’s Wort as an herbal remedy for depression should notify their doctor before taking any other medications, as St. John’s Wort may interfere with the effectiveness of certain medications such as antidepressants, birth control, and some medications used to treat heart conditions.
Patients that have taken St. John’s Wort have complained of nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea and some people have not found adequate relief with the treatment.
For the person suffering from depression who would like to treat symptoms at home, St. John’s Wort can be an effective alternative to reduce symptoms and manage the illness.
Depression may also be treated with the use of antidepressants, which must be prescribed by a medical doctor. After discussing the patient’s history and symptoms of depression, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants in order to reduce or relieve symptoms, as well as restore functioning in the person’s life.
Antidepressants may be taken in combination with counseling or therapy. Antidepressants work to restore the chemical imbalance in the brain that takes place during depression. This can help relieve some of the symptoms of negative and sad feelings as well as allow the patient to resume some of their previous activities.
Antidepressants take time to work and most people begin to feel relief from symptoms starting at two weeks, although it may take longer. This is due to the time it takes for the medication to build up to a therapeutic level in the body. Because of this, most antidepressants require a slow decrease in dosage before discontinuing in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
There are various types of antidepressants available for prescription to treat depression. Common side effects include nausea, dizziness, tremors, sweating, and headaches. A prescription for antidepressants does not need to be a lifelong habit. Many people are able to manage their depression through antidepressants for a certain period of time before discontinuing them.
Antidepressants may be used to manage the acute effects of depression following a significant event until the person is able to handle their feelings on their own.
Depression is a common mood disorder that affects many people in the United States, but is largely unrecognized as being a potentially severe illness. For the person who recognizes his or her symptoms of depression and reaches out, help is available so they will not have to suffer alone.