Around 800,000 Australian adults suffer from depression every year, and on average, one in five people will experience clinical depression at some time in their lives. Depression is the leading cause of suicide, yet it is often misunderstood and regarding as somewhat less serious than a physical illness.
What is depression?
Depression is a serious medical illness, affecting both the mind and the body. As with any serious medical condition it requires help, and left untreated, the consequences of depression can be severe. Some sufferers of depression resort to alcohol or drugs in a state of despair, family or carer problems are exacerbated, and the person many entertain thoughts of suicide.
Depression is difficult to pinpoint, and it is important to understand what depression means for each individual. Any person, of any age can suffer from this illness yet it is often missed, or dismissed as something that the person will simply “get over”.
One in four females compared to one in six males suffer from depression. Experts believe there are a number of explanation for this. Menstrual cycles and the menopause as well as childbirth may play a part, or the fact that women often experience losses on a much deeper emotional level, and have less power than man.
Heather Gridley, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Victoria University, says that depression may be the result of women’s life circumstances. “Women experience less power in their lives in whole lot of areas, such as safety and money, and taking responsibility for a family. It makes it hard to make time and space for yourself,” says Gridley.
Reactionary vs Endogenous Depression
It is normal to experience feelings of depression after a major, life-altering event. This is referred to as reactionary depression. Endogenous depression occurs even though there is no obvious triggering factor, but the feelings are coming from within the individual. These two types may overlap with more than one contributing factor.
Researchers still have a long way to go before they fully understand why people become depressed, but the general consensus is that depression is caused by a combination of psychological factors, which cause chemical imbalances in the brain.
If your mother, father or sibling had depression, it is not a foregone conclusion that you will develop the illness too, but it does increase your risk. Environment, diet and lifestyle, and personality may also play a part in this multifaceted illness.
Common causes of depression may be sustained problems at home or work, suffering from a chronic illness or physical trauma. All of these will lower our resistance to fight both physical and emotional illness, including depression.
People with depression feel isolated, and their normal thinking patterns and behaviour are not there to help them deal with everyday situations.
The forms depression can take vary enormously. “It would be different for everybody,” says Leanne Pethick, CEO of depressioNet. Depression was founded in 2000 to provide resources of information, help and support for Australian’s affected by depression.
“One of the biggest challenges for a lot of people in getting an accurate diagnosis, is the inability to be able to express how they feeling,” says Pethick. “Basically it’s really feeling like a stranger to yourself.”
What are the symptoms?
Depression cannot be identified by a sole symptom, and it can affect people both physically and mentally. Many of the symptoms are similar to those experienced when your mood is low, but they are usually more intense and longer lasting.
Generally, symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness, hopelessness or despair, a loss of appetite, sleeping problems, physical exhaustion and concentration difficulties, and feeling that life simply isn’t worth living.
Sometimes a person with depression may demonstrate behaviour that is totally out of character. “Excessive gambling or shoplifting may be a cry for help from somebody who may not be able to put words to their depression,” says Gridley, “they’re trying to fill themselves with something that represents an emptiness inside.”
Types of depression
There are a number of different types of depression, ranging in symptoms and severity. Some common types include Post Natal Depression, Major Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
“Unipolar Depression” is a very broad term that is used to describe many types of depression, and basically means that you can go down but you cannot come up. “Bipolar depression is what we used to call manic depression, which has both highs and lows,” says Gridley.
“Apparently there is much more of a genetic component to bipolar depression and it’s more evenly divided between men and women.”
Major depression sufferers experience most of the general symptoms of depression and lack energy to do the simple daily tasks such as getting out of bed or going to work. Feelings of paranoia and low self-esteem are common, as are suicidal thoughts.
Just snap out of it!
A lack of information and misconceptions as to what depression is can lead to discrimination and result in feelings of embarrassment and shame, preventing a person from seeking help.
A report in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2000, concluded that the general public need to be better educated in matters of mental health. The report, titled “Mental Health Literacy,” says: “Although the benefits of public knowledge of physical diseases are widely accepted, knowledge about mental disorders (mental health literacy) has been comparatively neglected.”
Just because you can’t see it as you would a physical illness, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and the willpower to ‘just snap out of it’ is not going to magically end depression, just as it wouldn’t overcome any other illness. “It’s a lack of understanding,” says Pethick. “It’s very different to being down in the dumps, and people with depression can’t just snap out of it.”
Help is available
Depression affect all areas of your life, both at home and at work, and it impacts on your friends and family too.
Depression is treatable with the appropriate help and support, but some people who need and want help simply lack the ability to seek help themselves, because of the symptoms of their depression.
There is a gap between what the professionals know about depression, and what depression sufferers understand. “Our role is to fill a gap that exists between people in their homes and workplaces,” says Pethick. “We provide online communication forums, we have a 24-hour service and we help people get through to treatment and emergency resources.”
Although they are not medical practitioners or counsellors, depressioNet does provide a bridge between sufferers and the many resources out there that they need, yet are unaware of. The website has an excellent section called ‘Your Stories’, with personal accounts of what it is like to live with depression.
depressioNet – can be contacted via their website www.depressionet.com.au
Beyond Blue – an organisation devoted to increasing awareness and understanding in the community. www.beyondblue.org.au Telephone 03 9810 6100
Mental Health Foundation of Australia (Victoria) – they operate a telephone information, referral, resource and support service. www.mentalhealthvic.org.au. Telephone 03 9427 0406.