Understanding Depression

Almost everyone uses the words “I’m depressed” to describe how they are feeling from time to time. However, used in this way what it means is often unclear, referring to anything from feeling down or ‘blue’ to being stressed or run down. It is often the way people describe their feelings when they are not even sure what it is they are feeling (e.g., “I’m just not feeling like my usual self. Maybe I’m depressed?”). Everyday feelings of depressed mood become problematic when they interfere with normal functioning and last for at least two weeks. Clinical depression can affect both the body and mind, changing how a person thinks and behaves, and how his/her body functions. It can disrupt some of the body’s most basic systems, making the person feel unwell.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression:

  • Feeling worthless, helpless or hopeless
  • Overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Increased alcohol and drug use
  • Staying home from work or school
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

Causes of Depression

There is no single cause of depression. Rather, a number of factors make some people more prone to it than others. These include upsetting life events, a genetic or family predisposition and psychological factors, like a negative or pessimistic view of life.  Depression tends to recur. Between 50% and 85% of people who have had one episode of depression will experience others in their lifetime.

Effects of Untreated Depression

People who are depressed cannot simply “pull themselves together” and feel better. They often delay seeking treatment because of concerns that having those feelings means they are giving up or are weak. These beliefs are untrue. In fact, more than 17% of American adults will experience depression at least once in their lifetime1 and the World Health Organization lists depression as the 4th leading cause of disability worldwide2. Untreated, depression can interfere with relationships and one’s ability to function at work, and can increase the chances of drug or alcohol addiction. In severe cases it can also result in suicide. Without treatment clinical depression can last for months or years.

Systems Affected by Depression:

  • Sleep-wake cycle
  • Hormonal system
  • Stress response system
  • Immune system
  • Gastrointestinal system

1 Blazer, DG, Kessler, RC, McGonagle, KA, & Swartz, MS. (1994). The prevalence and distribution of major depression in a national community sample: The national comorbidity survey. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 151, 979-986.
2 Depression. Retrieved June 26, 2008, from www.who.int/mental_health/management/ depression/definition/en/