What is Depression?

Depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, is a common medical condition that affects people both mentally and physically and can happen to anyone.  It is an overall sadness and lack of interest that can be debilitating and even life-threatening.

For a diagnosis of depression, symptoms must persist for two weeks or more and include:

  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Insomnia
  • Thoughts of suicide or attempts of suicide
  • Aches and pains
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Sad, empty feelings that persist
  • Digestive problems
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Lack of interest

According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in 6 people (16.6%) will experience depression in his or her lifetime.  Depression is not the same as the feeling you get when through a difficult time like the loss of someone you love or the end of a relationship.  These are difficult times but they make sense and they usually change over time. With Major Depressive Disorder, there’s often no known reason for the sadness, nor does it usually change without help.


What Causes It?

There are 4 risk factors for depression:

Genetics.  If someone in your family suffers from depression the likelihood that you would develop depression is higher.

Environmental.  People who are abused, neglected, exposed to violence or live in severe poverty are more prone to developing depression.

Personality.  For some people, their personality causes them to experience depression because they have low self-esteem, are pessimistic or get overwhelmed by the stress in life.

Biochemistry.  An imbalance in the chemical in the brain can cause symptoms of depression.


What are the Available Treatments?

Depression is a very treatable illness.  Before a treatment regimen is considered, it’s important to have a complete physical and evaluation by a doctor.  There are several conditions such as thyroid problems, brain tumors, and lack of vitamins that can cause symptoms that are similar to depression and they should be ruled out first.

Psychotherapy.  When someone is experiencing mild depression, psychotherapy alone may be enough to treat it but for MDD, psychotherapy is used in conjunction with medication.  Psychotherapy for depression usually involves cognitive behavioral therapy through problem-solving.

Antidepressants.  Medication is used to treat a person’s brain chemistry.  Scientists believe that depression begins in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  Chemicals called neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) pass messages between nerve cells.  When someone suffers from depression due to a chemical imbalance, it means signals are getting lost. Antidepressants change how the neurotransmitters work so signals can get through.    Different types of antidepressants change the neurotransmitters different ways so antidepressant therapy usually involves trying them until one is found that works.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.  TMS uses electromagnetic coils to direct magnetic fields to the prefrontal cortex where the neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation are located.  Instead of changing how neurotransmitters work, this non-invasive treatment stimulates them into doing the job they were meant to do. While it isn’t a permanent solution, TMS treatment an effective drug-free treatment for depression.  It is usually the next step if antidepressants fail to work.
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).  This therapy uses electricity to stimulate the brain, “jump starting” the neurotransmitters.  It is usually only used for the most severe cases of depression that have not responded to antidepressants.  It is an invasive procedure done under sedation and can cause memory loss.

No matter what treatment brings you success at relieving your symptoms of depression, there are simple things you can do to help too.  Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding depressants like alcohol, and using meditation or relaxation techniques to relieve stress can all help your body and mind be healthy and more able to heal.

With a little help, most people can successfully overcome depression and lead a happy and functional life.  It all starts with that first step.