If you are struggling with depression, the sadness you feel may be so consuming that you’re unable to do much with yourself. Nearly 20 million adults in the United States are living with depression, a mental illness characterized by feelings of sadness and hopelessness that persist far longer than a normal bad day or week. Depression can suck the color out of your world, leaving you feeling isolated and alone, unable to perform even the simplest of daily tasks. You may be so overwhelmed with despair that life hardly feels worth living. Suicidal thoughts may flicker through your mind as you desperately search for a way to cope with these devastating emotions. Life doesn’t have to be tainted with depression – with the right treatment strategies, you can learn to lead a happy, productive life once again.
Feeling sad and down following a life-changing event such as a bad grade in school, getting turned down for a job, or experiencing a breakup of a romantic relationship is normal. In time, these negative feelings are replaced by more positive ones and the life-changing event fades into the background. People who are struggling with depressive disorders, however, find that their mental disorder leads to changes in their mood, body, and mind. The debilitating symptoms of depressive disorders lead to much emotional pain and suffering. More than a passing bad mood or a reaction to a negative life event, depressive disorders cannot simply be willed away with good intentions or be “gotten over”. Depressive disorders are a very serious, very common illness that can be treated with the right combination of medication, therapies, and self-help strategies. There are several types of depressive disorders that vary in symptomatology, persistence, and severity, including:
Major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression, is a very common form of depressive disorders that are characterized by a combination of symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to properly function in daily life. These symptoms impact the ability of a person to eat, work, sleep, study, and enjoy once-loved activities. While some people who have major depressive disorder only experience a single episode of major depression, most do experience more than one episode throughout their life.
Minor depressive disorder is a type of depressive disorder that is characterized by the same – but far less severe – symptoms of major depressive disorder. These symptoms do cause significant impairment in daily functioning, but not to the same degree that major depressive disorder does. If left untreated, minor depressive disorder can easily turn into major depressive disorder – leading to significant impairment and disability.
Dysthymic disorder, or dysthymia is a type of depressive disorder lasting longer than two years with symptoms that do not cause the same type of major disability that major depressive disorder causes, but that do lead to a decrease in overall happiness and pleasure. People who have dysthymia run the risk of developing episodes of major depression if left untreated.
While depressive disorders are a chronic, highly treatable condition, many people who have these disorders do not seek the care and treatment needed to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives. Most people are able to recover from depressive disorders using a long-term combination of medication management, various therapeutic interventions, and proper self-care techniques.
Each year, depressive disorders affect 5% to 8% of adults in the United States; approximately 25 million people in the U.S. will have an episode of major depression this year. Unfortunately, even with recent advancements in care and treatment, only about half of these people will receive treatment.
Causes and Risk Factors for Depressive Disorders
Researchers tend to agree that depressive disorders are not the result of a single cause, but rather a combination of genetic, physical, and environmental risk factors working together to cause depressive disorder. Even so, there are a number of people who develop depressive disorders in the absence of any risk factors or triggers. The most commonly cited causes and risk factors for depressive disorders include:
Genetic: It’s understood that depressive disorders do run in families, however it is unknown what – if any – the genetic link may be. Those who have relatives who struggle with depressive disorders are more likely to develop a depressive disorder than those without a similar family history.
Physical: Depressive disorders, much like other mental health conditions, are disorders of the brain. It’s been understood that there exists a relationship between low levels of certain neurotransmitters – notably serotonin and dopamine – in the brain and depression. In addition, brain imaging studies such as MRIs and CT scans have discovered that the structures in the brain responsible for behavior, sleep, mood, cognition, and appetite of those who have depressive disorders appear different than those without the disorder.
Environmental: Depressive disorders may be triggered by very traumatic experiences, including the loss of a loved one, natural disasters, or the breakup of a significant friendship or romantic relationship.
- Being female – women are 70% more likely than men to report depressive disorders
- History of depression as a child or adolescent
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- History of borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorders, or PTSD
- Chronic, severe illnesses
Signs and Symptoms of Depressive Disorders
The symptoms of depressive disorders will vary based upon individual genetic makeup, presence of co-occurring disorders, and severity of symptoms. The most common symptoms of depressive disorders include:
- Loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities
- Angry outbursts over even the smallest of matters
- Loss of interest in sex
- Withdrawing from friends and loved ones
- Spending increasing amounts of time alone
- Changes in eating patterns
- Weight loss or gain
- Changes in sleeping patterns – insomnia or hypersomnia
- Fatigue, tiredness
- Lack of energy
- Slowed general body movements
- Slowed thinking
- Slowed speaking
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble thinking clearly
- Challenges with decision making
- Unexplained physical problems such as back pain or headaches
- Persistent sad mood
- Feeling empty inside
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Fixation on past failures
- Blaming oneself for events outside of their control
- Frequent thoughts of death
- Suicide attempts
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.
Effects of Depressive Disorders
Despite depression being a highly treatable mental disorder, many people who have depression remain untreated. Untreated depressive disorders can lead to very serious complications in nearly every aspect of a person’s life. Depressive disorders can take a tremendous toll on people and those who love them, leading to emotional, behavioral, and physical health problems that impact every area of a person’s life. Complications of untreated depressive disorders include:
- Excess weight gain and/or obesity
- Alcoholism or substance abuse
- Anxiety disorders
- Familial problems
- Interpersonal relationship problems
- Difficulties maintaining responsibilities at home, work, or school
- Social isolation
- Suicidal ideation
- Self-harming behaviors
- Premature death
Depressive disorders are often accompanied by other types of mental disorders. The most common comorbid, co-occurring disorders include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Alcohol or substance use
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Borderline personality disorder