Depression: The Common Cold of Mental Illness

By Lindsey Townsend

Donna, a 35-year-old bank officer, used to look forward to her seven-year-old son’s soccer games, but lately,it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. She’s lost 12 pounds in the last two months because she just doesn’t feel like eating. Once decisive and efficient, she has trouble concentrating and making decisions. “All I want to do during the day,” she says, “is sleep, but then I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep.”

Although she doesn’t know it, Donna is experiencing clinical depression. As one of the most common forms of psychological disorder, depression costs Americans up to 35 billion dollars a year in lost productivity, medical expense, and destroyed careers, as well as untold numbers of family breakups.

According to the National Foundation for Depressive Illness, between 35,000,000 and 40,000,000 Americans are likely to be affected by serious depression during their lives. It is the seventh or eight leading cause of death in the U.S., and the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults.

Yet despite the widespread debilitation that it causes, less than 30% of those suffering from depression or manic depression are aware that they have a disease, much less a treatable physical one. Tim Obermeyer, 41, a Dallas restaurant manager, said, “I knew that there was no real reason why I should feel bad, yet the feelings of worthlessness persisted. I thought I was having a mid-life crisis. It wasn’t until a friend of mine pulled me aside and told me that he thought I was depressed that I ever realized that (depression) might be the problem.”

The good news is that eighty to ninety percent of those afflicted can be successfully treated. There is a growing consensus among scientists that depression is a core disruption of normal brain chemistry and can be treated as such. Clinical depression is an illness caused by an imbalance of chemical transmitters in the brain called serotonin and norepinephrine.

In some instances, depression can be triggered by life stresses. Sometimes a significant loss can trigger unresolved grief for other losses that have been experienced. In such cases, a therapist can help guide the depressed patient through any childhood issues that may still be affecting him or her. Recent research suggests that people who are genetically predisposed to depression (e.g. have a parent with a history of depression) are more vulnerable to developing depression in response to a life trauma, such as divorce or the death of a close friend or family member.

According to Dr. Sarita Uhr, a psychiatrist in private practice in Richardson, “In many cases, a combination of talk therapy along with antidepressant treatment is more effective than either used alone.” It is common for people to have a therapist for “talk therapy” and a psychiatrist who handles the medical part of the treatment.

So how can you tell if you’re experiencing a clinical depression or just a depression resulting from the normal ups and downs of life? Dr. Uhr says, “Everyone experiences occasional periods of feeling down from time to time. However, if you feel depressed every day for two weeks, experience difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, have a change in your appetite, and a low sex drive, you may be clinically depressed.”

Managing Depression

Many of the symptoms of clinical depression, such as loss of sleep, appetite, and sex drive, are responsive to anti-depressant medication. The newest weapons in the fight against depression are a generation of specific antidepressants called the SSRIs or serotonin reuptake blockers, which increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. Examples of the SSRIs include Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft. They have become the new first-line treatment for depression. Their most common side effects include diarrhea or nausea, headache, insomnia, agitation and difficulty reaching orgasm.

For proper diagnosis of depression and administration of antidepressant medication, consult a physician. The majority of people who are treated with antidepressant medication respond favorably, and most are able to resume their normal activities and lifestyle during and after treatment. Many people find regular counseling useful as well.

For more information, call the National Foundation for Depressive Illness, Inc. at 800-248-4344 for nationwide referral lists of university medical centers and physicians who specialize in the treatment and for patient support groups.

Are You Depressed?

  1. I feel downhearted, blue, and sad.
  2. I don’t enjoy the things I used to.
  3. I feel that others would be better off if I were dead.
  4. I feel that I am not useful or needed.
  5. I am losing weight.
  6. I have trouble sleeping through the night.
  7. I am restless and can’t keep still.
  8. My mind isn’t as clear as it used to be.
  9. I get tired for no reason
  10. I feel hopeless about the future.

Rating your responses: If you agree with at least five of the statements, including either item 1 or 2, and if you have had these symptoms for at least two weeks, professional help is strongly recommended. If you answered “yes” to statement 3, get help immediately.
   --National Foundation for Depressive Illness Inc.

Self-Help For Depression

Note: The following suggestions may be useful as supplements to a course of medical treatment prescribed by a physician, but are not intended to replace it. If you suspect you may be depressed, make an appointment with a medical professional.

  • Get outside at least once a day for a walk by yourself.
  • Light exercise of any kind can be very helpful.
  • Don’t fight the depression--try to accept it as an illness.
  • If your appetite is low, eat small nutritious snacks and have other people cook for you, if possible.
  • Delay any big decisions about work, marriage, or money until you feel better.
  • Don’t trust your memory--take notes and make lists.
  • Avoid being home alone for long periods of time--the depressive thoughts can get worse when no one is around.
  • If you have to do some work, do it in the afternoon or early evening. Energy and interest are usually best at these times.
       --Mood Disorder Association