Depression is a commonly experienced illness on college campuses and in the American population. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH, 1999) reported that 9.5% of American adults suffer from depression in given year. That is over 18 million people. Though a greater proportion of women experience depression, men are also at risk for depression. Depression is thought to affect 12% of women and 7% of men (NIMH, 1999). The college years coincide with the time of life when depression often begins, with typical age of onset for depression ranging from 15-30 years of age or earlier.
What is Depression?
The word “depression” has come to have an everyday meaning, often associated with extreme sadness. Everybody gets sad occasionally. However, depressive disorders can be severely debilitating. There are three main types of depressive disorders:
Lasting at least two weeks, major depression is characterized by the experience of several symptoms, including persistent sadness or apathy, and interferes with social activities, work or studies, appetite and sleep and the enjoyment of previously pleasurable activities. Untreated, these episodes often reoccur throughout an individual's life, though it may occur just once.
Dysthymia refers to chronic levels of depression that are not severe enough to classify as major depression. However, individuals who suffer from Dysthymia can also experience major depression from time to time. While not causing the same level of interference with life activities, Dysthymia can prevent individuals from enjoying life and functioning to the fullest of their capacities.
Also known as manic-depressive disorder, Bipolar Disorder involves a cycling pattern of extreme highs (the manic phase) and lows (depression). During the depressive phase, an individual can experience all of the symptom of depression. The manic phase is often characterized by excessive elation, irritability, grandiose thoughts, diminished need for sleep, increased energy and poor judgment. It can be important to distinguish between major depression and bipolar disorder as treatments that are appropriate for one may not be appropriate for the other.
Causes of Depression
A common question that people often ask is "what causes depression?" Due to a lack of understanding of the causes of depression among the general public, depression can often evoke feelings of blame and guilt about having the condition. Although our scientific understanding of the causes of depression is still somewhat limited, there appear to be several factors involved.
Biology: Chemical imbalances in the levels of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine) in the brain have been strongly implicated in having a role in depression.
Genetics: Evidence suggests that people who have a family history of depression are more at risk for experiencing depression. This increased risk is most likely due to a complex interaction of inherited genes. In other words, it is thought to be unlikely that there is one "depression gene".
Social and Environmental Factors: Over time, our life experiences slowly shape how we think about ourselves, our world and our future. Beck, a leader in cognitive psychology movement, suggests that people who experience depression form a "negative cognitive triad", or negative beliefs about themselves, their environment and their future (Alford & Beck, 1998).
Signs of Depression
Here are some signs to watch for that might suggest that you or someone you know is suffering from depression. These symptoms last for two or more weeks:
Feeling sad or miserable
Loss of interest in activities
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
Thoughts about death or suicide.
Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
Weight loss or gain
Feelings of exhaustion every day
Difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly
Do some of these signs sound familiar? Take the On-line Screening for depression here
Depression and Thinking
Research has consistently shown that depression is connected with the way people think. David Burns (1980) talks about how people who are depressed are vulnerable to “thinking errors” such as:
jumping to conclusions - assuming something based on not enough information
overgeneralizing – applying observations beyond their context
catastrophizing– exaggerating the importance of negative events
minimizing - reducing the importance of positive events
One implication is that challenging negative thinking by examining the evidence for and against negative thoughts can help fight depression.
What can I do?
First, realize that depression is a medical illness. Just like other illnesses, it’s not your fault and it’s something that can be treated. The most important thing that you can do to help yourself or someone that you love who is suffering from depression is to help them to seek appropriate treatment. While 80% of people who seek treatment gain some symptom relief, only 1/3 of people suffering from depression seek out treatment. That means that two thirds of people with depression suffer alone when effective help exists.