Did you know October is National Depression Education and Awareness Month? This is an opportunity for everyone to get a chance at understanding depression. Protecting your mental health is an all-year endeavor, but this campaign can help you and your loved ones start important conversations and raise awareness about this common condition.
Yes — awareness does matter. Research shows that depression awareness campaigns help reduce the stigma associated with depression and help people recognize signs and symptoms, which may promote earlier intervention and treatment. Public awareness campaigns may even help reduce the rates of suicide when provided in combination with other intervention approaches, including training for medical personnel, teachers, clergy, and local media.
If you have depression, managing your daily life can seem stressful or downright insurmountable at times. This requires all acts of tremendous resiliency and strength, because it requires actions such as figuring out how to cope, recognizing if you or a loved one needs help, and figuring out where to get help.
You deserve to be informed about your mental health, and if you live with depression you deserve the help that’s available to you. To help us honor National Depression Education and Awareness Month, keep reading to learn seven key facts about depression and discover some helpful resources.
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1. What is Depression?
Depression is a leading mental illness affecting more than 16 million Americans every year. While common, depression isn’t a “normal” part of life. It’s more significant and longer-lasting than the occasional feelings of sadness or “being down in the dumps” that everybody experiences from time to time.
Depression is not a sign of mental weakness nor poor character. While certain populations are more at risk for depression—including women and anyone with a family history of depression—this mental illness affects people of all ages and backgrounds. Additionally, the condition ranges from mild to severe and can disrupt a person’s ability to work, affect their ability to take care of themselves, impair their relationships, and in severe cases lead to thoughts or attempts of suicide and self-harm.
2. What Are the Common Symptoms of Depression?
When understanding depression, keep in mind that many signs and symptoms of depression are subtle and can be hard to spot, and not everybody who has depression looks or acts the same way. Plus, many people with depression feel ashamed and embarrassed about their mental health struggles, so they hide their feelings from friends, loved ones, and colleagues.
The two main symptoms of depression are an unusually sad mood and no longer enjoying certain activities that used to be enjoyable. A person must have at least one of these symptoms nearly every day for at least two weeks in order to be diagnosed with the disorder.
Other warning signs and symptoms include:
- Extreme fatigue, slow movement, and a lack of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, emptiness, and guilt
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Changes in sleeping patterns— sleeping too much, not sleeping enough, or having trouble falling or staying asleep
- Changes in appetite — eating too much or too little. This can lead to weight gain or loss
- Thoughts about death and self-harm*
- Trouble remembering things, concentrating, and making decisions.
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs. A person may appear more agitated, irritable, restless, and reckless.
- Persistent physical symptoms like digestive problems, cramps, and headaches that cannot be explained by another condition and don’t respond as expected to typical treatment.
3. Why Me? Causes of Depression
Research points to several possible causes of depression, although the exact cause isn’t always clear. Generally, most doctors and researchers agree that a combination of genes and environmental factors like stress can alter a person’s brain chemistry and hormone levels. This can make it harder for them to stabilize their mood and therefore increase their risk of depression.
Other potential risk factors or triggers of depression include:
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Certain medications
- Certain health conditions like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis
- Low self-esteem
- Challenging and stressful life events including a job loss, financial hardship, sickness or death of a loved one, or divorce
4. Understanding Depression: The Crucial Value of an Accurate Diagnosis
In order to be diagnosed with clinical depression, a person must feel unusually sad and/or lose enjoyment in activities they used to enjoy nearly every day for at least two weeks. Only a medical professional like a doctor or psychiatrist can make this diagnosis.
The right diagnosis is essential because it ensures a person gets the right interventions. Depression can also mimic other conditions like anxiety, bipolar disorder, or dementia. These and other conditions need to be ruled out or identified (since depression can co-occur with other health issues) in order to make sure the person gets comprehensive and appropriate treatment.
Additionally, more than one type of depression exists and these may require different interventions.
5. Different Types of Depression
Clinical depression, also known as major depressive disorder or MDD, is the main form of depression and a type of mood disorder. Several other conditions fall into this category, including:
- Persistent depressive disorder: generally longer lasting but less severe than major depressive disorder
- Postpartum depression (PPD): depression in new moms that starts after birth and lasts for two weeks to one year
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): associated with decreased sunlight exposure in the fall and winter months (with remission during spring and summer months)
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder: a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) that profoundly impacts a woman’s life
- Bipolar disorder: a mental health condition characterized by extreme mood volatility, including highs (mania) and lows (depression)
6. Common Consequences of Untreated Depression
When understanding depression, it should be noted that depression can be extremely disruptive and distressing for the person experiencing it and his or her loved ones. But only about a third of all people with severe depression seek professional treatment.
Unfortunately, studies show that having untreated depression may increase a person’s risk for:
- Cognitive decline and increased inflammation the brain
- Chronic pain
- Osteoporosis and impaired bone mineral density
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune disorders
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Migraine headaches
People with untreated depression may not even know they have it. Therefore, this means signs and symptoms like sleep problems, irritability, anger, and recklessness can get worse over time. This can lead to other problems that impact a person’s physical and mental health, career, finances, and relationships.
Suicide is the worst and most severe consequence of untreated or under-treated depression.
7. Is There a Cure? Available Treatments for Depression
It’s not necessarily accurate to say depression can be “cured.” But in understanding depression, people should know that it’s possible for those with depression to have full remission of the disorder. People with depression can also learn how to manage their condition and lead healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives.
Research suggests a combination of psychotherapy and medications is the best treatment for depression. Additional treatments may be right for you, but your exact plan depends on your personal health history and type and severity of depression you have.
Additional treatments include:
- Brain stimulation therapies like repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS)
- Herbal supplements like folate and St. John’s Wort
Newer treatments, like transcranial near-infrared laser therapy and psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and MDMA show promising results. But more research needs to be done to determine their safety, effectiveness, and (in the case of psychedelic drugs) legality.
Depression affects the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. It can disrupt relationships, careers, and even physical health. Seeking treatment for depression shows incredible courage. It also shows courage to talk to a loved one if you’re concerned about their mental health.
This October, do your part to break the stigma. Particularly, raise awareness about depression, and share this article with your loved ones and colleagues. Additionally, be sure to check out other helpful resources about depression, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Institute of Mental Health, and Mental Health America.