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What is Depression?

Depression is a seemingly common but misunderstood mood disorder. Many people believe it is a sign of weakness, or something you can just snap out of. Meaningful Minds, Clinical Psychologist, Melissa Cilliers looks at what depression really is and how to treat it.

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

J.K Rowling (1999)

Depression is one of the leading causes of disease around the world and is often described as the “common cold” of psychopathology. You may have asked yourself once or twice in your lifetime if you are or have been depressed. The word “depressed” is often used loosely to describe the ups and downs of everyday life, but do we know exactly what it means to be depressed? Perhaps you know of someone who has been diagnosed with a depressive disorder or with depressive symptoms, perhaps you have recognised the symptoms in yourself? Depressive symptoms come in all shapes and sizes and the disorder presents itself in many different forms.

Clinical depression affects mood, mind, body and behaviour. According to the World Health Organisation (2013), more than 350 million individuals suffer from depression. Previously it was thought that depression only affected adults, however, recent research and case studies have found evidence of depression in adolescents and even young children.

If we take a closer look at what it means to be depressed, you may find that you may very well be suffering with depressive symptoms, or, you may find that you are on the downward spiral toward depression. To truly understand depression we need to understand its origins and how it presents itself.

Causes of depression

Researchers have found that genetics and heritability play a major role in the development of depression. So what does this mean? It could be that someone in your family, even extended family, may have passed down the gene for either depression or biploar disorder, giving you a predisposition to develop the mental illness. This does not mean however, that you will definitely inherit the gene, it merely highlights that there is a predisposition for it.

It is also important to remember that the environment that we are exposed to will also play an important role in whether or not you may develop depressive symptoms. Growing up in an environment in which emotional attachment is rare and emotional expression is frowned upon may cause a developing child to internalise certain normal emotions that should be externalised in a safe environment with someone they trust. Psychosocial stressors in which the basic human needs are not met may also contribute to the development of depressive symptoms and in more severe cases of abuse, neglect, poverty and lack of a support system may contribute to the development of the illness. Stressful and traumatic experiences in early childhood place individuals at high risk for depression.

Thoughts and your world view will also put you at risk for not only developing depression, but also maintaining the illness. If an individual always expects a negative outcome, feelings of hopelessness is the result. Hopelessness is reported as being a strong predictor for suicide. Furthermore, during depression, hopelessness increases, making suicide even more likely.

These forms of negative errors in thinking effect an individual’s daily life. Some individuals may think of everything in a negative light, turning seemingly small setbacks into catastrophes.

Symptoms of depression

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of depression may include the following:

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions

  • Fatigue and decreased energy

  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness

  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism

  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping

  • Irritability, restlessness

  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex

  • Overeating or appetite loss

  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings

  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts

These symptoms need to be present for extended period of time to be associated with depression.

Types of depression

  • Major Depressive Disorder

  • Dysthymia

  • Post partum depression

  • Seasonal affective disorder

  • Atypical depression

  • Bipolar disorder (current episode depression)

Treatment options for depression

It is very important to educate yourself around the symptoms you are experiencing. Do some research to be sure that what you are experiencing is severe enough to seek out treatment. Sometimes there may be an underlying physical cause to your symptoms in which case the physical cause needs to be treated first, possibly resulting in alleviation of the depressive symptoms. The severity of your symptoms will ultimately determine the treatment option you utilise.

Psychotherapy is very effective in the treatment of depression. Cognitive behavioural therapy has particularly been found to be most effective as it focuses the treatment on your thoughts, emotions and behaviours that maintain the disorder. Although all therapists vary in their approaches to treating depression, often just having a safe space to be heard can be healing in itself.

Medication is also a common treatment option for depression. It is important that you are assessed appropriately for you pharmacological needs. This is also a trial and error process as there are many different products on the market aimed at treating depression; therefore the medication needs to be tailored to the brain’s biochemistry needs.

The best approach is to combine the medication and the psychotherapy. Research has shown that by combining these two treatment options you are more likely to manage your symptoms effectively. Important to note that psychotherapy may be used in isolation, however it would not be recommended to rely solely on the medication.

It is pivotal in your recovery process to makes some lifestyle changes in conjunction with the other treatment options. Exercise, sleep, nutrition and self care are all important for your physical and mental wellbeing.

Finally, a good social support system will reduce isolation, a common risk of depression. Make sure you are surrounding yourself with people or activities that lift your mood.

If you or someone you care about may be suffering from depressive symptoms, please make an appointment at Meaningful Minds to be assessed for possible treatment.

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