Problems and misfortunes are a part of life. Everyone experiences unhappiness, and many people may become depressed temporarily when things don't go as they would like. Experiences of failure commonly result in temporary feelings of worthlessness and self-blame, while personal losses cause feelings of sadness, disappointment and emptiness. Such feelings are normal, and they usually pass after a short time. This is not the case with depressive illness.
What are the signs of depressive illness?
Depression becomes an illness, or clinical depression, when the feelings described above are severe, last for several weeks, and begin to interfere with one's work and social life. Depressive illness can change the way a person thinks and behaves, and how his/her body functions. Some of the signs to look for are:
feeling worthless, helpless or hopeless,
sleeping more or less than usual,
eating more or less than usual,
having difficulty concentrating or making decisions,
loss of interest in taking part in activities,
decreased sex drive,
avoiding other people,
overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief,
feeling unreasonably guilty,
loss of energy, feeling very tired,
thoughts of death or suicide.
If you or someone you know has been experiencing a number of these symptoms, we hope this pamphlet will help you understand what is happening and encourage you or your friend to seek professional help.
What causes depression?
There is no one cause of depression, neither is it fully understood. The following factors may make some people more prone than others to react to a loss or failure with a clinical depression:
specific, distressing life events,
a biochemical imbalance in the brain,
psychological factors, like a negative or pessimistic view of life.
There may also be a genetic link since people with a family history of depression are more likely to experience it.
How long does depression last?
The depressed feelings we all experience after a serious loss or disappointment may last for a short or a long time. How long depends on the person, the severity of the loss, and the support available to help the person to cope with it.
Clinical depression may also last for short or long periods. It rarely becomes permanent. Without professional treatment, it may end naturally after several weeks or months. With treatment, it may end much more quickly.
Does depressive illness follow a pattern?
Unfortunately, once a person has had a clinical depression, he/she is more likely to suffer from depression again. For example, some people experience seasonal cycles of depression, particularly in winter. This is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.).
Five to ten percent of people who experience depression also experience states of exaggerated happiness or elation called mania. The occurrence of both depression and mania at different times is called bipolar affective disorder, while repeated experiences of depression alone is termed unipolar affective disorder.
How is depression treated?
Depression is the most treatable of mental illnesses. Most people who suffer from depression are helped by the treatment they get, which usually includes medication and/or psychological counselling. Support from family, friends and self-help groups can also make a big difference.
Many people who are seriously depressed wait too long to seek treatment or they may not seek treatment at all. They may not realize that they have a treatable illness, or they may be concerned about getting help because of the negative attitudes held by society towards this type of illness.
What can friends and family do?
It can be difficult to be with and to help someone who is seriously depressed. Some people who are depressed keep to themselves, while others may not want to be alone. They may react strongly to the things you say or do. It is important that you let them know that it is okay to talk about their feelings and thoughts. Listen and offer support rather than trying to contradict them or talk them out of it. Let them know you care. Ask them how you can help, and offer to contact their family doctor or a mental health professional. Find out about local self-help groups and attend a meeting with them. Try to be patient and non-judgemental. Most of all, don't do it alone - get other people to provide help and support too.