Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Are You Depressed?

About one in 10 North Americans suffers some form of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Women experience depression twice as often as men. Depression has devastating effects on a person's relationships with family and friends, on the ability to do productive work and, of course, on the ability to enjoy life.

Are You Depressed?
You may think this is an easy question to answer, but it's not wise to make your own diagnosis of depression — leave that to a professional. However, you may want to ask yourself a few basic questions first:
  • Do you feel unhappy, irritable or anxious?
  • Have you stopped enjoying the activities that always made you happy? Or have you always had trouble enjoying yourself?
  • Are you no longer able to do the things you need to do to keep things going at home or at work?
  • Are you less hopeful about the future?
  • Do find that it is hard to make important decisions without too much anxiety or distress?
  • Are you sleeping poorly, too little or too much? Do you have trouble getting to sleep or do you wake too early?
  • Has your appetite changed? Have you lost or gained weight as a result?
  • Do you have less energy than you need?
  • Do you think about hurting yourself? Do you wish for death or think about suicide?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, especially if your answer has been yes for more than a few weeks or months, you may have a depression that needs help. It may make you anxious to seek assistance, but you may also have a lot to gain.

Potential Roadblocks
One difficulty in facing the problem of depression is stigma. People resist labeling their problems as depression. The term depression may sound too clinical, objective or cold-hearted. People tend to describe their problems with everyday words, such as unhappiness, stress, disappointment, irritation or anger.

For some people, to be depressed means to be weak, flawed or morally tainted. The danger of this point of view is that you can become self-critical or embarrassed. You may avoid help or feel you don't deserve it. Instead of seeing depression as a problem (medical or otherwise) with a solution, it becomes a source of shame. So you may dismiss your ups and downs as a normal part of life not worthy of any special attention.

The Bottom Line
Depression is a clinical diagnosis. This means that no laboratory test or X-ray can tell you whether you are depressed or not.

Depression is not just feeling a little down. It is diagnosed by a set of symptoms. Some symptoms indicate mild depression while other symptoms, such as considering suicide, suggest a more severe depression that requires immediate action.

Take the most honest measure you can of your feelings and experiences, and tell a health-care provider about them. Together you can discuss what would be helpful. Labeling your problems is not always so important. More important is describing your feelings and experiences in detail so helpful plans can be made, so you can feel better, enjoy life more, and be more productive in the ways that matter to you.

Harvard Medicine, July 2007