The recent suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams has once again put the spotlight on the illness of depression.
Although there was an outpouring of kind words and sympathy for Robin Williams and his family, there were a few misguided voices suggesting his suicide was cowardly and selfish.
I think these are the voices of people who have no idea how serious and debilitating depression is. For someone like Robin, who suffered from depression most of his adult life, the mental anguish had become more than he could bear. Ending his life was more bearable than living it.
For those who are feeling depressed, it's often hard to communicate the depths of suffering and pain they are experiencing. Everything looks normal on the outside, and so family and friends often assume the depressed person will just snap out of it. Those with depression will feel shame, guilt and embarrassment about their “weakness” and inability to get over it.
Although there is increasing education and awareness around the illness, there's still a stigma attached to depression that makes it hard for sufferers to be open and seek help when they need it. There are many myths and misunderstandings about the illness that foster a code of unnecessary silence.
Are you feeling depressed? Here are 10 misconceptions you need to know about depression:
1. Depression won't happen to me
Maybe not, but it is one of the most common mental health problems. According to The World Health Organization, it affects 121 million people worldwide, and 20% of people carry the risk of developing depression during their lifetime. It can affect anyone regardless of age, sex, or race. If it hasn't touched you personally, the odds are high it has or will impact someone close to you.
2. Only emotionally weak people get depressed
Depression is an illness, just like diabetes or arthritis. It has nothing to do with one's character, willpower, or personality. It is a serious medical condition that requires treatment and regular care from a doctor. Depressed people have higher levels of stress hormones in their bodies, and the brain scans show they have decreased activity in certain parts of the brain. Depression does tend to run in families and can be triggered by major life events, both negative and positive.
3. Depression is getting the blues or feeling sad
Sadness is one symptom of depression, but depression is much more serious than a temporary case of the blues or a bad mood. Depression involves an array of emotional, mental, and physical symptoms that last for more than two weeks. (See the symptoms below.)
4. Depression will eventually go away
Depression gets worse and more debilitating if you don't treat it. It requires the care of a medical or psychiatric doctor, often with the support of a licensed therapist. The earlier one seeks treatment, the better.
5. Depression isn't treatable
Actually it is one of the most treatable of all mental health conditions. According to the World Health Organization, around 60- 80% of depressed patients respond well to a combination of medication and therapy. However, treatment and recovery can take make months.
6. Depression is part of aging
Depression isn't a “normal” part of aging. Older people do experience more life events that can trigger depression, such as loss of loved ones, decline of physical health, moving out of a family home, etc. Many older people grew up in a time when depression wasn't discussed or acknowledged, and therefore may feel more shame about admitting their feelings. The highest suicide rate of any age group is men over the age of 65, so seniors should pay attention to the signs and symptoms carefully.
7. Depression only affects adults
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 1 in 33 children and 1 in 8 adolescents suffer depression in any given year. Children have a harder time verbalizing their feelings, and often adults misinterpret the symptoms in children. It's important that parents know the signs in children and take the initiative to look for them in their children.
8. Antidepressants are the only way to cure depression
Medication is an important part of treatment, but antidepressants alone often aren't enough. Depression frequently requires psychotherapy, as well as other supportive activities like moderate exercise, getting regular sleep, avoiding alcohol, a healthy diet, setting goals, and challenging negative thoughts.
9. Depressed people must stay on antidepressants forever
People are often fearful of taking antidepressants because they believe they'll become addicted and can never stop taking them. Depending on your depression symptoms and how you respond to treatment, antidepressants can be stopped after a period of months, while some patients need to stay on medication for years. Antidepressants aren't additive, but stopping them often causes withdrawal symptoms. That's why it's necessary to taper off gradually under a doctor's care.
10. If a family member has depression, you will too
Although heredity is a small risk factor, it doesn't guarantee you'll get depressed. Having no relatives who suffered with depression doesn't guarantee you won't. Regardless of whether or not you have this risk factor, it's important to know the symptoms and can recognize them in yourself if they occur.
Do you know the signs and symptoms of depression? If not, here are the most common:
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Fatigue and low energy
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- Overeating or appetite loss
- Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
- Persistent sad, anxious, or empty feelings
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
If you have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, you must call your doctor right away. Depression does carry a high risk of suicide, especially if left untreated. If you or someone you know is talking about suicide or death frequently or making remarks like, “It would be better if I weren't around,” take these comments seriously. Call your local suicide hotline or 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).
Feeling depressed isn't something to take lightly. You can't “wait it out” or will it away. It is up to you to take control of your mental health, not only for the sake of your personal quality of life and health, but also for those you love. Those who love you need you to be healthy, emotionally available, and predictable. Don't allow guilt or shame to prevent you from seeking treatment. The most proactive, courageous thing you can do is take charge of your depression and do what needs to be done to feel better.
Have you or someone close to you suffered with depression? How did you (or they) treat it? What thoughts or experiences can you share?
photo credit: Amy Wilbanks