A few days ago I came across these words scrawled on the walls of a bus shelter: “I’m okay.” In that moment I felt a connection to this stranger. I remembered that there had been a few posts on the subject of depression in the last couple of months, so I decided it would be a good time for me to share my experience with the disorder. But what exactly is depression?
Depression of any kind is not something to be shrugged off or ignored. It is a very real, very serious and potentially damaging psychological condition that can affect not only your own emotional and physical well-being but also of those closest to you. If you or anyone you know is or may be suffering from depression, please open up to a loved one and seek psychiatric or psychological aid if possible.
The following information is almost exclusively gleaned from my university intro psychology professor’s lectures, so if you disagree with any of the information please share some sources to clarify anything posted here! In my own words I would describe depression as a state of mind in which one’s interest in the real world and one’s view of the self decrease enough to affect one’s way of life. Sound vague? Let’s get a bit more detailed on the subject.
Depression is a neurotic mood — or affective — disorder classified under two types: major depression and dysthymia. Major depression is described as intense symptoms that usually persist on a daily basis, while dysthymia is described as less intense yet chronic (two or more years) symptoms that may or may not be experienced daily. While the sufferer generally remains fairly grounded in reality, major depression can at times include psychotic features such as hallucinations or delusions.
What can cause depression? There is no definitive answer. Depression is a complicated disorder with a number of potential causes, none of which operate exclusively on their own.
- Genetic causes, such as in relation to faulty genes that affect damage to the brain structures.
- Organic causes such as hormonal or neurochemical imbalances and damage to the brain structures.
- The environment. Experiencing excessive stress can contribute to depression, but I’d also argue that culture also plays a part, especially in how we view and stigmatize those with depression.
- Behavioural causes. By being inadvertently rewarded for depressive behaviour (e.g. more attention from friends and family, being given more leniency towards work or school) the behaviour can be strengthened.
- Cognitive causes, such as an under-developed set of problem-solving skills.
- Psychodynamic causes. Although psychoanalysis is not given as much credence as it once was, it has been suggested that unresolved and unconscious emotional conflicts from childhood can play a role in the development of depression.
- Existential causes, i.e. a lack of meaning in one’s life.
What about the general symptoms?
- In adults, feelings of general sadness or unhappiness. In children, an irritable mood is likely to be displayed.
- Interest or pleasure in activities decreases, both in previously established hobbies and in general social activities.
- Changes in body weight.
- Changes in sleep patterns; the individual may experience a sharp increase in time spent sleeping or napping/lounging and/or may find it difficult to fall asleep on a normal schedule.
- A general sense of worthlessness, often accompanied by a reverse in one’s view of positive and negative events: attributing positive events to temporary and external causes (e.g. “I did well on this exam because I’m lucky“) and negative events to internal and stable causes (e.g. “I did poorly on this exam because I am stupid“).
- Impairments in cognitive abilities.
- Psychomotor impairments or retardation.
- Suicidal thoughts (with or without suicidal behaviour).
Here’s some extra info that may interest you:
- According to the Bay Ridge Treatment Center, approximately 16 percent of individuals will suffer from some form of depression at least once in their lifetime. Considering many do not seek help, there’s a fair chance that these numbers are actually much higher.
- What about recovery statistics? 10 to 20 percent of those with depression will not recover from the disorder, 50 percent experience no recurring episodes after they’ve recovered and the remaining 30 to 40 percent will experience recurring episodes that can become more frequent with age.
- With dysthymic depression, the sufferer can experience a “break” in depressive symptoms for up to two months.
- Think you are out of the woods once you enter the initial stages of recovery? For those suffering from major depression, the risk of attempted suicide often increases during this initial period.
- A depressed individual can likely experience a spontaneous recovery of the disorder.
Now, what about my experience with depression? I first became depressed at 13 years old, which lasted slightly longer than a year. Looking back on my youth I would say that minor symptoms actually began to present themselves by the time I was 11 or 12. At that time I became increasingly isolated from my friends (by choice), and whenever my neighbourhood friends would come over to see if I wanted to play I’d shoo them away. I’ve since become more social again, but I’m definitely not as socially adept as I was in my youth. I now experience recurring episodes, sometimes mild and sometimes more intrusive; I believe that I suffer from dysthymia.
My main catalysts for the depression were genetic variables and abandonment issues. Until the age of 12 I lost at least one friend per year, usually through the families moving away. When I entered into the 5th grade, the “popular” group I was friends with decided I was no longer acceptable to hang out with. This was when I began to be bullied for my weight, being called ‘bison’ by my male classmates. But I didn’t experience any debilitating emotional changes until I entered the 8th grade. This was an awkward time of discovery for me: I was contemplating my spirituality, I developed my first same-sex crush, and my older sister’s problems with depression (and schizophrenia, as I’d learn about seven years later) became far more evident. My abandonment issues also escalated with my new group of friends, and for about a year I found myself consistently spending my lunch hours alone in the library, outside, or walking around the halls. My depression worsened throughout the year and I’d eventually become suicidal as well, although I never acted on these thoughts. I recall one school day going to a nearby mall on my lunch break and missing the bus back to school. Walking back — which took a few hours — I found myself constantly stopping to cry, stopping to look out into the road and wonder what it would be like to simply step out into the traffic.
Eventually I opened up. Although I felt that my friends didn’t care, they obviously noticed that something was off when they prompted me to talk to our school counselor so I could skip my Drama class for the day. When I returned I bawled my eyes out, and from that point on things started to slowly get better. Since then I’ve spoken to a few psychologists, although my initial visits were not by choice. I even went to one for a few months in high school, this time by choice.
Since my first experience with the disorder I’ve experienced a number of episodes, two of which stand out quite a bit in my mind. The first was in my first year of high school and it again centered on abandonment issues: the small group of friends I had made during my first semester decided to completely ignore me, one claiming that I was too clingy for them because I enjoyed showing physical affection and hung around them during lunch (and here I thought friends were for spending free time with!). For about a week or two all the emotions I had experienced during the 8th grade came right back, only condensed into a few weeks instead of a year.
Thankfully I was able to recover from this and even made a few friends that I’m still very close to now. The more recent episode occurred less than a year ago, and as vain as it sounds it was spurred by my skin. My acne flared during the summer of 2010 and worsened significantly by the end of the year and into 2011. For the first half of 2011 I changed my schedule around so that I could avoid being outside of my house as much as possible. I stopped working out and stopped eating healthily, two things I had once been extremely invested in. I often spoke to my friends over Facebook but never followed through with any talks of making plans to hang out. While I excelled in my classes, I found it hard to concentrate or feel comfortable. I stopped sleeping properly and instead invested myself in television and online video games. It wasn’t until my sister confronted me about it in late Spring of that year that my attitude began to change, and I’m happy to say that I’ve been in a fairly healthy frame of mind since the summer of 2011.
While I’m not currently depressed, it’s an ongoing battle that I have to consistently deal with. If you’re in a similar situation, just remember that we are not alone. Please talk to someone about how you are feeling. You may feel embarrassed or you may not want to admit that there is a problem, but living depressed is never truly living.
Have you ever been depressed? What has your experience been like?