Understanding Depression

Depression is a common but often misunderstood illness. Learn more about its causes and symptoms.

Sometimes life can get you down. You expect to feel blue when life deals you a blow such as the death of a loved one or loss of a job. But over time your feelings should start to lift. If your symptoms are severe or you find that you just can't seem to snap out of it, you should suspect depression.

Depression is very common. It affects about one in 10 adults each year. For reasons that aren't understood, it affects women about twice as often as men. It most commonly starts in the late teens or early twenties, but it can strike anyone at any age.

Even though depression is common, many people don't understand it. They don't recognize that it can cause physical symptoms like insomnia. They may be ashamed to admit to their feelings, and may blame themselves for not being stronger, happier and better.

Don't let these false notions stand in the way of getting help. Depression is not your fault. It is an illness, and it can be treated. Treatment can relieve symptoms and help you enjoy life again.

What causes depression?
Depression doesn't have a single cause. Instead, it may be the result of a mix of factors, such as:

  • Chemical imbalances. Chemicals called neurotransmitters allow brain cells to communicate with one another. Studies have shown that people who have depression have imbalances of neurotransmitters such as serotonin.
  • Genetic factors. Depression is often inherited. You are much more likely to develop depression if other family members have it.
  • Life stresses. Events such as loss of a loved one, financial strain, job dissatisfaction or a serious health problem can bring on depression. Childhood exposure to abuse, violence or other stressful situations may trigger depression in later life.
  • Personality. People who have poor self-esteem or a negative outlook may be at risk for depression.
  • Substance abuse. Many people with drug or alcohol problems also have major depression. They may use drugs and alcohol to try to medicate themselves, but this only adds to their problems.

How can I recognize depression?
Depression is more than just feeling blue. It's a persistent feeling of sadness (or irritability in some people) or lack of pleasure along with symptoms such as:

  • Sleeping less or more than usual
  • Losing or gaining weight without trying
  • Feeling restless
  • Feeling tired or sluggish
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Thoughts of death or suicide (call 9-1-1 right away if you are thinking about hurting yourself)

If you have several of these symptoms, and they last longer than two weeks and make it hard to function, you may need treatment. Talk to your doctor. A doctor can prescribe medication or refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist for further treatment.