Don't let depression sneak up on you

October 08, 2014
Woman taking in the sun

Depression is often an ignored disease, but it made headlines recently when, after months of speculation about her mental state, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced in September that she suffers from the condition.

Bowen admitted that she has coped with the “debilitating” disease most of her life. But like many people with depression, she suffered in silence, afraid she would be judged if she let others know about her personal struggle.

Depression is a hidden disease, says Jody Rawles, MD, associate clinical professor and interim chair of Psychiatry & Human Behavior at UC Irvine Health. “People sometimes think that depression is a failing of character and they are ashamed to seek help.”

Oct. 9 is National Depression Screening Day. The observance was created in 1991 to increase awareness and provide screenings for the disease. Depression is one of the leading causes of disability both nationally and worldwide. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 6.7 percent of U.S adults experience major depressive disorder each year.

Like many other medical conditions, early diagnosis and treatment are vital to a successful recovery. Rawles encourages anyone who feels depressed for more than two weeks, or anyone thinking about self-injury or suicide, to seek help.

For mild depression, where there are no thoughts of suicide or psychosis, he recommends starting with a primary care or family medicine doctor. “Licensed clinical social workers and psychologists can also be good first-line treatment providers,” says Rawles. “But if you have depression that lasts more than six months, thoughts of hurting yourself or psychotic thinking, you should see a psychiatrist.”

Psychiatrists are the medical professionals most comprehensively trained to treat depression and other mental illnesses.

What is depression?

Depression is characterized by a decreased sense of purpose, loss of self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness. Genetics, stress, toxins and even infections can contribute to depression. Those suffering from depression, and their loved ones, often underestimate constant feelings of sadness and despair, dismissing them as temporary mood swings.

Because most people with depression can still function at work, school or in the family environment, the symptoms often go unnoticed. The condition manifests differently in each person, but there are signs to recognize whether someone is depressed. Someone with depression may have:

  • A sudden change in personality, appearance and demeanor
  • Hypersomnia (too much sleep) or hyposomnia (poor sleep)
  • Loss or gain of appetite
  • Poor concentration
  • Loss of interest in things that once were enjoyable  
  • Decreased energy
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Feelings of guilt or a focus on failures.

It’s also important to understand that depression can be both a diagnosis and a symptom. “You can be diagnosed with depression, or you can have depression secondary to a medical condition,” says Rawles.  Hypothyroidism, for example, can cause individuals to feel depressed because of a lack of hormones in the thyroid. Also, individuals suffering from serious, chronic or terminal diseases are more susceptible to getting depression.  

Light at the end of the tunnel

Many men and women carry the heavy burden of depression, accepting that they’ll always feel unhappy. But depression isn’t something you have to live with.

There are several ways to treat depression. Medications, lifestyle changes and psychotherapy – known as talk therapy – can help. Skeptics often question the validity of talking to a therapist or participating in group therapy. How is talking about your problems going to help?

“Talking to others can help you see your situation in a more objective way, and it can help you recognize and change your negative thoughts into positive thoughts. Also, thoughts have been known to change chemistry, so channeling positive thoughts is essential to the healing process,” says Rawles.

Rawles adds that the combination of lifestyle changes, therapy and medications gives someone with depression a greater chance at recovering.

Feeling a little blue?

Depression is a serious condition and those who present severe symptoms, like thinking about hurting themselves or giving up on life, should seek professional help immediately.

In less severe cases, there are simple steps you can take to help clear your head and curb your feelings of sadness:

  • Spend more time outdoors. Vitamin D deficiency contributes to depression. Moderate exposure to sunshine can help treat depression and lift your mood.
  • Increase exercise and be more active.
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
  • Surround yourself with people who are a positive influence in your life.
  • Seek help. Understanding depression and talking to a mental health professional will help you take control of the disease.

For more information about depression and to find out more about UC Irvine Health Psychiatry Services, call 714-456-5902.