Major depressive disorder, also known as depression, is a prevalent and severe medical condition that has adverse effects on your emotions, thoughts, and behavior. However, the good news is that it is treatable. Depression can result in feelings of sorrow and a lack of interest in activities that were once pleasurable. This condition can lead to various emotional and physical challenges, as well as reduced productivity at home and work.
The symptoms of depression can range from mild to severe and may comprise:
- Experiencing sadness or a depressed mood
- No longer finding enjoyment in activities previously enjoyed
- Changes in appetite, such as weight loss or gain not related to dieting
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping excessively
- Feeling fatigued or losing energy
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., fidgeting, pacing, handwringing), or slowed movements or speech (which must be noticeable to others)
- Feeling a sense of worthlessness or guilt
- Difficulty with thinking, concentration, or decision-making
- Having thoughts of death or suicide
To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must persist for a minimum of two weeks and signify a change from your previous level of functioning. It is crucial to rule out underlying medical causes such as thyroid problems, a brain tumor, or vitamin deficiency since they can mimic symptoms of depression.
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Depression affects around 6.7% (one in 15) of adults in any given year and approximately 16.6% (one in six) of people will experience depression at some point in their life. Although depression can occur at any age, it usually emerges in late teens to mid-20s. Women are more prone to depression than men, and some studies suggest that about one-third of women will have a significant depressive episode in their lifetime. If a first-degree relative (parent, child, or sibling) has depression, there is a high degree of heritability, accounting for approximately 40%.
Depression Is Different From Sadness or Grief
Losing a loved one, ending a relationship, or losing a job can be incredibly challenging experiences that can trigger feelings of sadness or grief. It’s natural for someone experiencing loss to describe themselves as “depressed.” However, feeling sad is not the same as having depression. While the grieving process is normal and unique to each person, it shares some characteristics with depression. However, there are also essential differences:
- In grief, painful emotions come and go in waves, and positive memories of the deceased are often mixed in. In major depression, feelings of sadness or lack of interest persist for most of two weeks.
- In grief, self-esteem is usually intact. In major depression, feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred are typical.
- In grief, thoughts of death may arise when thinking about “joining” the deceased loved one. In major depression, thoughts of suicide are focused on ending one’s life due to feeling worthless or being unable to cope with depression’s pain.
Grief and depression can coexist. For some people, the death of a loved one, being a victim of a physical assault, or experiencing a natural disaster can trigger depression. When grief and depression occur together, the grief is more severe and longer-lasting than grief without depression. It’s crucial to distinguish between grief and depression, which can assist individuals in obtaining the help, support, or treatment they need.
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Risk Factors for Depression
Depression can impact anyone, including individuals who seem to be living in relatively ideal circumstances. Various factors can contribute to the development of depression, such as:
- Biochemistry: Differences in specific chemicals in the brain may be a factor in the onset of depression symptoms.
- Genetics: Depression may run in families. For instance, if one identical twin experiences depression, the other has a 70 percent chance of developing the condition at some point in their life.
- Personality: Individuals with low self-esteem, those who are easily overwhelmed by stress, or those who are generally pessimistic may be more susceptible to depression.
- Environmental factors: Continuous exposure to violence, neglect, abuse, or poverty may make some people more vulnerable to depression.
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How Is Depression Treated?
Depression is a mental disorder that is highly treatable. Approximately 80% to 90% of people with depression eventually respond well to treatment, and nearly all patients experience some degree of symptom relief.
Before receiving a diagnosis or treatment, it is essential for a health professional to conduct a thorough diagnostic evaluation, which includes an interview and a physical examination. In some cases, a blood test may also be necessary to rule out underlying medical conditions, such as a thyroid problem or vitamin deficiency, which can cause depression-like symptoms. The evaluation will help to identify specific symptoms and explore medical and family histories, as well as cultural and environmental factors, with the ultimate goal of arriving at a diagnosis and developing an appropriate course of action.
Individuals with depression may have imbalanced brain chemistry, which can be addressed through treatment. Antidepressant medication may be prescribed to help adjust brain chemistry. These drugs are not addictive or tranquilizers and do not have a stimulating effect on individuals who are not depressed.
While some improvement may be seen within the first few weeks of taking antidepressants, it may take up to two or three months for the full effects to be observed. If there is little or no improvement, the dosage of the medication may be adjusted, or another antidepressant may be added or substituted. In certain situations, other psychotropic medications may also be useful. It is important to inform your doctor if the medication is not working or if you experience any side effects.
Psychiatrists often recommend that patients continue taking medication for at least six months after their symptoms have improved. Long-term maintenance treatment may be recommended to decrease the risk of future episodes, especially for those at high risk.
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Talk therapy or psychotherapy may be used alone for the treatment of mild depression, while moderate to severe depression is often treated using a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressant medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective in treating depression. CBT is focused on the present, and aims to identify negative or distorted thoughts with the goal of changing them to more positive ones.
Psychotherapy can involve the individual alone, or it may include others such as family members or couples. Family or couples therapy can help address issues within close relationships. Group therapy, on the other hand, brings together people with similar illnesses in a supportive environment to help them learn from each other how to cope with similar situations.
The duration of treatment depends on the severity of the depression. In some cases, significant improvement can be made in 10 to 15 sessions, while in others, treatment may take several weeks or longer.
Self-help and Coping
To alleviate the symptoms of depression, there are several things individuals can do. Engaging in regular exercise can create positive feelings and improve mood. Getting enough quality sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, and avoiding alcohol (a depressant) can also help reduce symptoms.
It’s essential to acknowledge that depression is a genuine illness, and effective treatments are available. With proper diagnosis and treatment, the vast majority of people with depression can overcome it. If you’re experiencing depression symptoms, the first step is to consult with your family physician or psychiatrist. Talk about your concerns and request a thorough evaluation to address your mental health needs.