Depression affects an estimated one in 15 adults (6.7 percent) in any given year. And one in six people (16.6 percent) will experience it at some time in their life. It can occur at any time, but on average, first appears during the late teens to mid-20s.
Women are more likely than men to experience depression. Some studies show that one-third of women will experience a major depressive episode. In addition, there is a high degree of heritability (approximately 40 percent) when first-degree relatives (parents/children/siblings) have it.
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What is depression?
Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, think, and act. Fortunately, it is also treatable. It causes sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It can lead to various emotional and physical problems and decrease your ability to function at work and home.
Depression symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include:
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., inability to sit still, pacing, hand-wringing) or slowed movements or speech (these actions must be severe enough to be observable by others)
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Causes of depression
There’s no single cause of depression. It can occur for various reasons, and it has many different triggers. For some people, an upsetting or stressful life event, such as bereavement, divorce, illness, redundancy, and job or money worries, can be the cause.
Different causes can often combine to trigger depression. For example, you may feel low after being ill and then experience a traumatic event, such as a bereavement, resulting in depression.
People often talk about a “downward spiral” of events that leads to depression. For example, if your relationship with your partner breaks down, you’re likely to feel low, stop seeing friends and family, and start drinking more. All of this can make you feel worse and trigger it.
Some studies have also suggested that you’re more likely to get depression as you get older and that it’s more common in people who live in difficult social and economic circumstances.
How to treat depression
Depression is among the most treatable mental disorders. Between 80 and 90 percent of people with it eventually respond well to treatment. In addition, almost all patients gain some relief from their symptoms.
Before a diagnosis or treatment, a health professional should conduct a thorough diagnostic evaluation, including an interview and a physical examination. In some cases, a blood test might be done to ensure the depression is not due to a medical condition like a thyroid problem or a vitamin deficiency (reversing the medical cause would alleviate the depression-like symptoms). The evaluation will identify specific symptoms and explore medical and family histories and cultural and environmental factors to arrive at a diagnosis and plan a course of action.
The most common measures used to treat depression
Brain chemistry may contribute to an individual’s depression and factor into their treatment. For this reason, antidepressants might be prescribed to help modify one’s brain chemistry. These medications are not sedatives, “uppers,” or tranquilizers. They are not habit-forming. Generally, antidepressant medications have no stimulating effect on people not experiencing it. Therefore, doctors give people coping with long bouts of it antidepressant medications. However, it would be risky to buy and use antidepressants without consulting a doctor. It is detrimental if you become dependent on these medications. Besides, some antidepressant drugs can interact with other medications.
Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” is sometimes used alone to treat mild depression; for moderate to severe depression, psychotherapy is often used along with antidepressant medications. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective in treating it. CBT is a form of therapy focused on problem-solving in the present. CBT helps people recognize distorted/negative thinking to change thoughts and behaviors to respond to challenges more positively.
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)
ECT is a medical treatment most commonly reserved for patients with severe major depression who have not responded to other treatments. It involves a brief electrical stimulation of the brain while the patient is under anesthesia. A patient typically receives ECT two to three times a week for six to 12 treatments. It is usually managed by trained medical professionals, including a psychiatrist, an anesthesiologist, and a nurse or physician assistant. ECT has been used since the 1940s, and many years of research have led to major improvements and the recognition of its effectiveness as a mainstream rather than a “last resort” treatment.
Self-help and coping
There are several things people can do to help reduce its symptoms. For many people, regular exercise and meditation help create positive feelings and improves one’s mood. In addition, getting enough quality sleep regularly, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding alcohol (a depressant) can also help reduce its symptoms.
Depression is a real illness, and help is available. With proper diagnosis and treatment, most people with it will overcome it. If you are experiencing symptoms of it, a first step is to see your family physician or psychiatrist. Talk about your concerns and request a thorough evaluation. This is a start to addressing your mental health needs.