We all get “blue” at times –feeling sensitive and sad about a failure or disappointment in our lives. It’s a normal part of living in a challenging and uncertain world. Usually when we experience the blues it’s temporary and short-lived: before long we’re able to see things in a more positive light and feel better.
When we don’t “bounce-back” from sadness and have trouble with daily functioning (like eating, sleeping, working, and taking care of responsibilities) we need to consider the possibility that we might have “Major Depression.” Major Depression, also known as Clinical Depression, is different from the blues. It’s a serious emotional and biological disease that can affect your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as well as your mood and physical health. That’s pretty much your whole life. And that’s pretty big!
It may sound scary – especially if you (or a loved one) do have Major Depression, but there are ways to treat it and they can be very effective. It’s important to get treatment. If untreated, a major depressive episode can last a long time: anywhere from a few months to many years. It’s estimated that 25 million American adults are affected by depression each year – and only half receive treatment. That’s a lot of people suffering needlessly when help is available.
It’s unlikely that you can “fight-off” the feeling of depression yourself – sometimes people will convince themselves that they can overcome it without help. Why? It could be a fear of being labeled “crazy” if they are unhealthy mentally, or they don’t want to take medications to feel better.
My question is this: if you have diabetes, wouldn’t you go to the doctor for help? Wouldn’t you take insulin shots if necessary to be healthy and symptom-free? Mental diseases are every bit as real as physical diseases, even if we can’t “see” them. More importantly, they deserve our attention and care just as our physical bodies do. We’re not individual “parts” -- we are a “whole” body with each part necessary for the total system to run smoothly.
Think about a car for a minute: we can see the car frame, the tires, windows, and hood. If we get a flat tire, we fix it before we can move the car. We stop what we’re doing and take care of the problem. Now consider the engine. It’s usually hidden from our view, but if there’s something wrong it can make the whole car break down. Just because we can’t see the problem doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Taking care of the engine (our mental health) with regular maintenance and getting to the shop to fix occasional problems means our car will run as expected.
What does this mean? It means that Major Depression is real. It means it’s common. And it means it’s treatable. Two ways that are effective in treating Major Depression require seeking professional help. Compare it to going to the doctor if you broke your arm: doctors are trained to take care of broken bones. Psychiatrists and mental health professionals (counselors, therapists, and clinical social workers for example) are trained to help you when your mental health needs some care.
Medications often effectively control the serious symptoms of depression. Your doctor can decide what medication might be best for you and your situation. Psychotherapy, or counseling, has been shown to be effective for treatment of depression. While medication alone, or therapy alone, may be successful in treating mild to moderate depression, research has shown that severe depression responds best to a combination of the two.
If you think you might have Major Depression, what can you do while you wait for an appointment to see your doctor and therapist? First, I would encourage you to be gentle with yourself: you have an illness that needs treatment. Second, if you feel hopeless and have thoughts of suicide please seek immediate help. Call 911 or go to your local emergency room. You could also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number at 1-800-273 TALK (8255). They are available 24/7.
Ways that you can help yourself, in addition to professional help, include exercising (30 minutes of walking each day, for example), spending time with people and not being isolating, and breaking up large tasks that might be overwhelming into smaller, more manageable tasks. Try to maintain your pre-depression schedule: eat normal, healthy meals and sleep the number of hours you usually need, even if you don’t feel like it. Depression can effect appetite and make you want to eat more or less than you need. It can also cause you to feel like sleeping all day, or give you insomnia.
Fighting the urge to isolate yourself, sleep all day, and refuse to eat can help your body stay strong and keep you from falling deeper into depression. Unfortunately, depression creates symptoms that perpetuate it. If you have lost the desire to do things you used to enjoy, try to get yourself to spend a little bit of time in that activity.
It’s critical to take care of your physical needs while your mental health is being worked on. Remember, we are “whole” human beings and both mental and physical health needs to be considered in order to be healthy.
Okay, let’s recap: Major Depression is a serious illness. As with all serious illnesses, professional help is needed to help you recover. Treatment is available and effective. Self-care can help as you undergo professional treatment. You are worth it – and there is hope!
This is just an overview of Major Depression – future blogs will address the different ways depression can effect men, women, and cultural differences.