Depression is a real disease
Chances are, you know someone who is depressed. Not just in a bad mood, but suffering from depression -- a serious medical illness that affects nearly one in 10 Americans, according to a pamphlet produced by the American Psychiatric Association.
Sheila Cody, pastoral associate at St. Paul's Parish in Webster, knows at least one of those people. Several months ago, she visited a hospitalized parishioner who had been struggling with chronic depression. The woman told Cody how another visitor had told her to stop feeling sorry for herself and start thinking positively. Although this visitor had good intentions, she obviously had no understanding of depression or its causes and ended up hurting the parishioner's feelings, Cody said.
"Logic tells us that we should have more control over our emotions. There's so many myths about depression, even though there is a lot more information about depression readily available now," Cody said.
After hearing the parishioner's story, Cody decided to hold an educational workshop about depression at St. Paul's. John Cook, a clinical consultant with East House, presented "Understanding Depression" at the parish April 12. East House is a comprehensive rehabilitation agency that provides programs for adults recovering from mental illness and chemical dependency.
Cook said there are many misconceptions surrounding depression, and oftentimes well-meaning people will tell a depressed person to buck up or stop being so negative.
"Those are very irritating things for a depressed person to hear," Cook said.
Depression is a mood disorder that alters the brain's chemistry and causes people to become very focused on the negative side of life, he said. While people suffering from depression certainly do not want to feel the way they do, their disease can often make it difficult for them to function and participate in simple activities, let alone change the way they feel. Since depression is still largely misunderstood by the general public, the number of people suffering from the disease is far larger than the number of people being treated for it, he said.
Although depression can take a variety of different forms, Cook noted several of the disease's basic symptoms.
"The common denominators are a negative view of life, increased worrying, inability to experience pleasure and some change with sleep or appetite," he said.
Depression throws off the human body's internal clock, so those suffering from the disease will often feel worst in the morning and get either too much or too little sleep, he noted. Additional symptoms include feelings of guilt and worthlessness, fatigue and decreased energy, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, and thoughts of death or suicide, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Medication and talk therapy are among the basic treatments for depression, Cook said. Talk therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which a therapist will help a patient gain understanding of and resolve his or her problems through verbal exchanges. Electroconvulsive therapy can sometimes help those with severe or life-threatening depression or those who can't take antidepressant medication.
Just as in most situations in life, listening skills are more important than good advice when dealing with a depressed person, Cook said. Instead of offering suggestions or solutions, try to listen to the person and validate his or her feelings, he said.
"Encourage people to be as active as they can be," Cook added. Some people's symptoms improve with increased physical activity, although that can be easier said than done for someone with depression.
Women are more likely to experience depression than men are, although 3 million to 4 million men in the country are affected by it, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Although the disease can affect people of all ages, its first evidence often appears when people are between the ages of 24 and 44, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
"It's scary how common it is even with your youth. I think that depression is common (among senior citizens), and certainly they are going through some major medical events," Cody said. Senior citizens also have to grapple with different kinds of losses, including the loss of friends, relatives and independence, she noted.
Contrary to popular belief, depression is not a normal part of aging and should be diagnosed and treated, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.