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What is Depression?

Depression is a "whole-body" illness, involving your body, mood, and thoughts. It affects the way you eat and sleep, the way you feel about yourself, and the way you think about things. A depressive disorder is not the same as a passing blue mood. It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. People with a depressive illness cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years. Appropriate treatment, however, can help most people who suffer from depression.

Alternative names

Blues; Discouragement; Gloom; Mood changes; Sadness; Melancholy

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

  • Persistently sad, anxious, angry, irritable mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping.
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss, or overeating and weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, or chronic pain.

Depression Symptoms in Children

  • Poor school performance
  • Persistent boredom
  • Frequent complaints of physical problems such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Some of the classic “adult” symptoms of depression may also be more or less obvious in children compared to the actual emotions of sadness, such as a change in eating or sleeping patterns.
  • Teen depression may be characterized by the adolescent taking more risks, showing less concern for their own safety.

Causes, and risk factors of Depression

Some types of depression run in families, suggesting that a biological vulnerability can be inherited. This seems to be the case with bipolar disorder. Studies of families in which members of each generation develop bipolar disorder found that those with the illness have a somewhat different genetic makeup than those who do not get ill. However, the reverse is not true: Not everybody with the genetic makeup that causes vulnerability to bipolar disorder will have the illness. Apparently additional factors, possibly stresses at home, work, or school, are involved in its onset.

In some families, major depression also seems to occur generation after generation. However, it can also occur in people who have no family history of depression. Whether inherited or not, major depressive disorder is often associated with changes in brain structures or brain function.

People who have low self-esteem, who consistently view themselves and the world with pessimism or who are readily overwhelmed by stress, are prone to depression. Whether this represents a psychological predisposition or an early form of the illness is not clear.

In recent years, researchers have shown that physical changes in the body can be accompanied by mental changes as well. Medical illnesses such as stroke, a heart attack, cancer, Parkinson's disease, and hormonal disorders can cause depressive illness, making the sick person apathetic and unwilling to care for his or her physical needs, thus prolonging the recovery period. Also, a serious loss, difficult relationship, financial problem, or any stressful (unwelcome or even desired) change in life patterns can trigger a depressive episode. Very often, a combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors is involved in the onset of a depressive disorder. Later episodes of illness typically are precipitated by only mild stresses, or none at all.

While depression can strike anyone at any time, research has identified several factors associated with an increased risk for depression:

  • Family History — Having an immediate family member with depression increases the risk of developing depression. Other mental illnesses, such as alcoholism in family members, can also increase the risk for depression.
  • Stress — Negative life events, such as divorce, loss of a loved one or loss of employment are associated with increased depression. Research shows that chronic stresses (such as illness, lack of social support and numerous “daily hassles”) are also linked to depression.
  • Alcohol — Depression and alcoholism is often seen in the same patients at the same time. Alcohol is a depressant drug and its presence in a depressed person has serious implications on treatment outcome.
  • Marital Status – Depression is highest among divorced, separated, or co-habitating persons. It is lowest among single and married persons. People living alone have higher rates of depression than those living with others do.
  • Work Status — Research shows that people unemployed for six months or more in the last five years had a rate of depression three times that of the general population.
  • Physical Illness — Certain physical illnesses are associated with depression such as thyroid disorder, hormonal imbalances, chronic viral infections, cancer and heart diseases.
  • Medications — Many medications can cause depression-like symptoms, including sedatives such as Valium (diazepam) and pain medications such as Percocet and Demerol (meperidine).
  • Age – Most people experience their first episode of depression between the ages of 20 and 40. In fact, the average age of onset for depression is the mid-20s. Alarmingly, recent research shows that the average age of onset is decreasing with each generation. Children, adolescents and elderly persons often display unique symptoms of depression and have specific stressful events that predispose them to depression.
  • Tobacco – Increased tobacco use has been noted in depressed persons and individuals with underlying or current depressive symptoms are likely to experience mood disturbances when they attempt to quit.

Treatment for Depression

When you’re depressed, it can feel like you’ll never get out from under its shadow. But take heart. Even the most severe depression is treatable. With the right help and support, you can and will feel better.

There are many effective ways to deal with depression, including exercise, talk therapy, medication, natural supplements, and lifestyle choices. Learning about the treatment options will help you decide what measures are most likely to work best for your particular situation and needs. There are no quick fixes or instant cures, but if you're willing to work on yourself and stick with treatment, you'll find yourself out from under depression's shadow sooner than you think.

Complications of Depression

Depression is a serious illness that can take a terrible toll on individuals and families. Untreated depression can result in emotional, behavioral and health problems that affect every area of your life. Complications associated with depression can include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Substance abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Heart disease and other medical conditions
  • Work or school problems
  • Family conflicts
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Social isolation
  • Suicide

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