Depression is the second most common mental illness in the United States, closes following anxiety disorders and a whopping 16.2 million people in the country suffered a major depressive episode in the last year. It is also increasingly affecting children, often at younger ages and throughout their lives. In fact, children are especially vulnerable as they are unlikely to seek help or even understand what they are going through and the signs are difficult to catch. Depression in adults is one of the leading causes of suicide and self harm. The purpose of this article is to first get a better understanding of what depression is and armed with that knowledge, learn more about the many different kinds of treatments that are available.
What Is Depression
If you’re reading this, you most probably already know the basics; depression is a mental illness that affects over 350 million people, and causes intense feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, despair and worthlessness, as well as physically manifesting in the form of fatigue, insomnia and sudden drastic changes in weight and appearance. In some chronic cases of depression these feelings can arise suddenly and without warning or reason. But what we have here is a list of symptoms. What exactly is depression? What causes this suddenly and random explosion of extremely intense negative emotions?
The causes for depression, particularly in persons suffering long term from depression and not triggered by a single event or reason, have been linked to chemical reactions occurring within the brain affecting the chemical levels of the neurotransmitters our brain creates in order to send messages between nerve cells. These neurotransmitters are the part of the body that regulate and determine our mood and helps us function better. Some neurotransmitters include acetylcholine, which is responsible for helping our motor nerves communicate with our skeletal structure for movement. The main neurotransmitters that regulate mood are serotonin, the happy feeling chemical that releases endorphines in your brain that make you feel good, norepinephrine which passes nerve impulses from one neuron to another that consequently helps to improve your attentiveness and your energy levels, and dopamine, which also affects your attentiveness along with your motivation. Inconsistencies in dopamine levels have also been connected to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), bi-polarism and even schizophrenia.
If the above neurotransmitters are produced in lower levels in the brain, the likelihood of that affected person having depression increases. Further, if the receptor sites in the brain are unable to receive the neurotransmitters being sent out, this can also lead to a low production of serotonin, dopamine or norepinephrine. There are also possibilities of a low supply of the specific enzymes that are required for the production of these neurotransmitters. A shortage in production of the 3 mentioned stimulants, among other kinds of neurotransmitters, can be linked to the hopelessness and even the lethargy known to be a symptom of depression. Conversely, for people dealing with bi-polarism, these chemicals are probably being produced by the brain in a deregulated manner, which sudden bursts of excessive serotonin and dopamine, later followed by sudden drops.
However, the physiological causes for depression only lay out one side of the story. Depression can be exacerbated or alternately kept in control, depending on a number of other factors ranging from home environment to social interactions and work pressures. Depression can also be passed on genetically, that is, a person is more likely to have depression if there is a history of mental illness or depression in their family. Statistics show that women are more likely to suffer from depression than men and are especially vulnerable to major depressive episodes in a seasonal pattern (formerly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD). Women are also vulnerable to postpartum depression, with one in every seven women that give birth suffering from it and unable to fully care for themselves or their newborn child. While depression usually only takes effect in adulthood, there are still many cases being reported of children in adolescence dealing with depression, and even for adults can begin to develop during their childhood. So how can we combat this widespread ailment?
How Should We Deal With It?
Despite many misconceptions to the contrary, depression is absolutely treatable. If you or someone you know has had concerns about depression in the past, you probably would have heard someone suggest use of anti-depressants or mood stabilisers. These are usually prescription medications that increase (or decrease, as the necessity demands) the serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain to regulate one’s mood. Anti-depressants are effective when it comes to managing the intense emotions caused by depression, though they have been known to have minor side effects like dry mouth or blurry vision. There has been some experimentation with dopamine agents in anti depressants, but as Dopamine is also closely linked to the addiction centre of the brain, these agents present the possibility of abuse, and can also be linked to depressed persons often choose to “self medicate” and eventually become reliant on drugs or alcohol.
However, anti-depressants alone aren’t the solution. The second aspect of depression is the socio-environmental factors, varying from genetics to traumatic incidents in ones past. Especially keeping in mind that we are still discovering many things about the human body and neurotransmitters, psychotherapy and stress-management therapy can prove to be an invaluable resource. At the end of the day, anti-depressants can stabilise a person’s chemical constitution but it cannot give them a positive outlook at the end of a bad day.
If you choose to try anti depressants, speak to your doctor about the different kinds of anti-depressants that are out there so you can find one that works for you. After all, the exact chemical make-up that might be causing your depression or anxiety may not be the same as someone else you know that has depression. If you or someone you know is showing signs of depression, don’t wait to see your local mental healthcare professional. It is also important to maintain healthy habits, attend therapy regularly to keep track of your progress and to do your best to combat all those negative gnats flying around in your head. For many people, the battle against depression is a lifelong one. So be sure to equip yourself with everything you can and a few years down the line, you might find that you’ve become quite the warrior!