We live in an age of dazzling technology and constant awakening of new knowledge. What were only figments of the imagination for past generations are now commonplace conveniences. With all these amazing advancements, including in the field of medicine, it would seem that life has never been so good and bountiful. Yes, there are problems, but answers and solutions seem just on the horizon.
The World Health Organization, however, paints a less optimistic picture. It estimates that on any given day, 121 million people worldwide suffer from depression. There are many theories regarding the increasing rate of depression, but the fact is that this scourge robs men, women, and children of happiness, joy, and the capacity to deal with the common functions of life.
Feeling down from time to time is normal. But when emptiness and despair take hold and won’t go away, a person may be depressed. More than just the temporary “blues,” the lows of depression make it tough—if not impossible—to function normally.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION?
Several years ago, when our daughter’s first baby died shortly after birth, our own sadness was increased as we watched grief take over her life. She struggled for weeks just to find a reason to get up in the morning. She lacked interest in eating and other normal activities. Her grieving was mingled with periods of silent withdrawal, and we had difficulty knowing how to help her.
Unless there is an obvious cause, depression can mimic many illnesses and thus go undiagnosed. General health problems can include systems of the heart, nerves, stomach, muscles, lungs, etc. The stomach and colon are common sites for depressive symptoms. Food and even alcohol can become common tranquilizers to cover feelings of despair. In other cases, decreased appetite can result in nutritional depletion and weight loss.
Emotional symptoms can include anger, headaches, backaches, fatigue, irritability, hypersensitivity, and other out-of-the ordinary responses. Hobbies and friends lose their attraction. The depressed person may experience constant exhaustion. Just getting through the day can be overwhelming.
There can be spiritual implications as well. The most common, rejecting God, may be triggered by anger over a significant loss or because of excessive psychological guilt. Or an opposite reaction can occur. In trying to regain normalcy and cope with feelings of depression, a person may become zealously religious, spending hours in prayer or attending numerous religious gatherings in an attempt to appease the conscience.
THE DIFFERENT FACES OF DEPRESSION
Depression often looks different in men and women and in young people and older adults. An awareness of these differences helps ensure that the problem is recognized and treated.
DEPRESSION IN TEENS
While some depressed teens appear sad, others do not. A depressed teenager may be hostile, grumpy, or easily lose his or her temper. Unexplained aches and pains are also common symptoms of depression in young people.
Left untreated, teen depression can lead to problems at home and school, drug abuse, self-loathing—even irreversible tragedy such as homicidal violence or suicide. But with help, teenage depression is highly treatable.
DEPRESSION IN OLDER ADULTS
The difficult changes that many older adults face such as bereavement, loss of independence, and health problems—can lead to depression, especially in those without strong support systems. However, depression is not a normal part of aging. Older adults tend to complain more about the physical rather than the emotional signs and symptoms of depression, and so the problem often goes unrecognized. Depression in older adults is associated with poor health, a high mortality rate, and an increased risk of suicide, so diagnosis and treatment are extremely important.
DEPRESSION IN MEN
Depression is a loaded word in our culture and even in our church. Many associate it, however wrongly, with a judgment from God, an indication of a lack of faith, or a sign of weakness and excessive emotion. This is especially true with men. Depressed men are less likely than women to acknowledge feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness. Instead, they tend to complain about fatigue, irritability, sleep problems, and loss of interest in work and hobbies. Other signs and symptoms of depression in men include a loss of sexual interest, anger, aggression, violence, reckless behavior, and substance abuse. Even though depression rates for women are twice as high as those in men, men, especially older men, are a higher suicide risk.
DEPRESSION IN WOMEN
Rates of depression in women are twice as high as they are in men. This is due in part to hormonal factors such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), postpartum depression, and perimenopausal depression. As for signs and symptoms, women are more likely than men to experience pronounced feelings of guilt, sleep excessively, overeat, lose interest in sex, and gain weight. Women are also more likely to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Many new mothers suffer from some form of the “baby blues.” Postpartum depression, in contrast, lasts longer and is a more serious trigger for depression, in part because of hormonal changes associated with having a baby. Postpartum depression usually develops soon after delivery, but any depression that occurs within six months of childbirth may be postpartum depression.
WHEN DOES DEPRESSION BECOME DANGEROUS?
Depression is a major risk factor for suicide. The deep despair and hopelessness that accompanies depression can make suicide seem like the only way to escape the pain.
A suicidal person may not ask for help, but that doesn’t mean help isn’t wanted. Most people who are suicidal don’t want to die; they just want to stop hurting. Take any suicidal talk or behavior seriously. It’s not just a warning sign that the person is thinking about suicide—it’s a cry for help.
If you think a friend or family member is considering suicide, you might be afraid to bring up the subject. But talking openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can save a life. Speak up if you’re concerned and seek professional help immediately! Suicide prevention starts with recognizing the warning signs and taking action.
RED-FLAG SIGNS OF POSSIBLE SUICIDE RISK:
- Talk about dying
- Recent loss
- Change in personality
- Change in behavior
- Change in sleep patterns
- Change in eating habits
- Diminished sexual interest
- Fear of losing control
- Low self-esteem
- No hope for the future
- Isolation (avoiding company)
- Frequent episodes of sadness and crying
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Don’t be afraid to ask, “Do you sometimes feel so bad you think of suicide?” If the answer is: “Yes, I do think of suicide,” you must take it seriously and follow through. Remember: Always ask “How?” and “When?” before you ask “Why?” Make a contract. For example, you could say to the person, “Please promise me you won’t do anything to hurt yourself today.
Don’t leave your friend or family member alone. Contact support help. Call your friend’s physician. Call your local crisis center. Call 911.
DEALING WITH DEPRESSION
Understanding the cause of depression may give some clues as to how to overcome the problem. For example, if depression is the result of a dead-end job, the best treatment might be finding a more satisfying career, not taking an antidepressant. If one is new to an area and feeling lonely and sad, finding new friends at work or through a hobby will probably give the mood a boost, making therapy unnecessary. In such cases, depression is remedied by changing the situation.
For other situations, however, alternate methods may be explored.
1. Make an appointment to have a complete physical exam.
In some cases, a physical problem, such as an under-active thyroid or anemia, may be contributing to feelings of tiredness, decreased motivation, and a depressed mood.
2. Tap into supportive relationships.
If the thought of tackling your depression seems overwhelming, don’t panic. Feeling helpless and hopeless are symptoms of depression, not the reality of your situation. It does not mean that you’re weak or you can’t change! The key to depression recovery is to recognize the need and ask for help.
Having a strong support system in place will speed your recovery. Isolation fuels depression, so reach out to others, even when you feel like being alone. Let your family and friends know what you’re going through and tell them how they can support you.
3. Take care of yourself. Develop a “Wellness Toolbox.”
a. Get at least eight hours of sleep each night.
b. Expose yourself to a little sunlight every day.
c. Identify and reduce stressors.
d. Get regular exercise—at least 30 minutes three times a week.
e. Eat a healthy, mood-boosting diet.
- Don’t neglect breakfast.
- Don’t skip meals.
- Focus on complex carbohydrates.
- Boost your B vitamins.
- Consider taking a chromium supplement.
- Practice mindful eating.
4. Seek professional help.
Positive lifestyle changes, and support from family and friends are essential helpful elements. But early counseling from a mental health professional may prove the most beneficial. There are many effective treatments for depression, including therapy, medication, and alternative treatments. Learning about your options will help you decide what measures are most likely to work best for your particular situation and needs.
Effective treatment for depression often includes some form of therapy. Therapy gives you tools to treat depression from a variety of angles. What’s more, what you learn in therapy gives you skills and insight to prevent depression from coming back.
5. Tools for helping someone with depression
a. Recognize the symptoms of depression:
-changes in eating or sleeping patterns
-changes in normal routines and habits
-changes in moods (increased irritability, agitation, lack of interest in normal activities, etc.)
-changes in energy level
b. Aid in seeking help.
c. Be willing to listen sympathetically without judg- ment or criticism.
d. Beware of sinking into depression along with the individual; maintain your normal life.
e. Be patient; healing takes time.
f. Be caring; little acts of kindness may be rejected but often will be remembered.
g.Tap into the reliable Source of guidance and strength through prayer.
Our God is a God of answered prayer. He has promised to be a refuge and source of strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). Your friend/family member may not be inclined toward spiritual matters in the midst of his or her depression, and God understands that; however, He has the capacity to work in amazing ways through answered prayer.
One day, after weeks of no apparent improvement in our depressed daughter, her husband convinced her to go for a short walk with him “just around the block” of their home. While on their walk, they came across a dog in the middle of a busy boulevard, obviously bewildered by all the passing cars. Our daughter, an avid animal lover, begged her husband to rescue the dog before it became injured, which he did. The dog, a collie/German Shepherd mix, was thin, dirty, and neglected. He followed them home. Our daughter took him in, bathed him, fed him, and claimed him for her own. She lavished him with love and care, he loved her back, and this became a mutually healing and saving experience for both of them. “Max” developed into a beautiful dog with a very sweet nature, and until his death last year, he was devotedly our daughter’s dog, following her about, laying at her feet or beside her bed at night. We firmly believe God sent Max in answer to the many prayers for our daughter’s emotional and physical healing.
Depression is a mental health disorder that can stem from multiple sources. Keys to successful treatment lie in recognizing the symptoms and danger signs early and plugging into healing support and treatment. Whether you are suffering from symptoms yourself or helping someone else, depression should be taken seriously as an illness needing attention and treatment. A wealth of information is available through books, the Internet, local public health organizations, medical personnel, and a caring, educated (sympathetic and non-judgmental) church family.
Information sources include: Helpguide.org, “Understanding Depression: Signs, Symptoms, Causes and Help”; Dark Clouds, Silver Linings, by Dr. Archibald D. Hart (Focus on the Family Publishing, 1993); Counseling the Depressed: A How-To Approach, by Dr. Archibald D. Hart (Word Publishing, 1987); Depression for Dummies, by Laura L. Smith and Charles H. Elliott (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2003); Holy Bible, New International Version.