Understanding Depression

Almost everyone feels a bit blue from time to time. Dealing with death, the loss of a job or the dissolution of a marriage can be distressing, and people commonly respond with feelings of sadness and loss. Over time, as the pain begins to fade, the sadness tends to disappear. Feeling sadness is a normal part of the human experience, and it would be difficult to find even one person who has never felt sadness during his or her lifetime. It’s something we can all relate to.

For some people, however, feeling down isn’t transient. In fact, it is severe, persistent and debilitating.

These people are experiencing a form of depression, and without treatment, this depression can deepen and grow more severe. Over time, as the depression worsens, the person becomes nearly unable to get through the day. While depression like this may sound scary, and it is certainly serious, there is good news. Depression can often be treated, and the injuries that depression causes can often be healed. In order to start this process, however, the depressed person will need the help of his or her family. Depression rarely goes away without help, and depressed people can rarely access this help alone.

Depression Risk Factors

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about two percent of adults can be classified with major depression. The disorder can also strike children and the elderly.

While almost anyone can get depression at any time, there are some risk factors for major depression, including:
  • A family history of depression
  • A personal history of depression or persistent sadness
  • A small network of friends and trusted family members
  • Serious illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or HIV/AIDS
  • Certain medications, such as blood pressure medications or sleeping pills
  • An inability to articulate thoughts and feelings
  • A history of negative self-talk

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that people who abuse alcohol also tend to be at greater risk for depression. It’s unclear whether the depression causes the person to use alcohol, or the alcohol use leads to depression. People with a family history of alcoholism are at greater risk for depression, according to NIMH, so it’s possible that the two conditions share the same genetic basis.

Some people develop major depression after experiencing a terrifying event, such as a war, an earthquake or a violent attack. Other people develop depression during a transition to a new part of life. Becoming a parent, getting divorced or watching children leave the home could all trigger a depressive episode.


Signs and Symptoms

People who are experiencing depression often report that the disorder places a sort of film over their eyes, changing the entire way that they view the world and the people around them. They may feel as though everything that happens to them is bad or negative, and they may be convinced that the situation will not ever change.

As a consequence of these feelings, people with depression may:
  • Seem distracted or unable to concentrate
  • Sleep more or less than usual
  • Refuse to do the activities that once brought them pleasure
  • Gain or lose weight
  • Express feelings of hopelessness
  • Seem sluggish and slow

People with depression may hold down jobs and participate in relationships, but they may simply seem as though they are living underwater. They go to work, sit quietly at their desks, and head back home to bed when the workday is through. They may not answer the phone, read the paper, play sports or participate in any sort of pleasurable activity. Just getting through the day is exhausting.

Less Obvious Signs

Men and older people might exhibit signs of depression that are slightly different. Instead of seeming quiet and slow, they may seem jacked up and incredibly angry. Although the person with depression may feel very isolated and alone, he might actively push away loved ones. The person might seem irritable and hostile, constantly reacting with anger or yelling. The person might be agitated, pacing and wringing his hands, all while refusing to answer questions. He might yell, throw things or curse when asked to disclose his feelings, all in the hopes that people will stop asking questions. He might rage against other drivers while in the car or scream at the television.

Some people with depression might leave clues in the hopes that someone will notice and say something. Often, people turn to their doctors for this sort of help, but they aren’t completely honest with their doctors during their visits.

In one study published in the Journal of Family Practice, people with depression often visited their doctors for help, but in those visits, they often complained about other health problems, such as pain or infection. Since they did not discuss their depression directly, they did not get direct help for the issue, even though they desperately needed that help.

It might be hard to understand this behavior, but it’s important to remember that the person has a disorder that is changing the way he or she thinks and experiences the world.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, people experiencing major depression score lower on tests of cognitive function. They have trouble remembering information, and they express difficulty with making decisions. Since they’re unable to think clearly and make needed changes to help themselves improve, they may be unable to change the course of the disease. The depression prevents them from diagnosing their own problem and asking for help in a clear and direct way.

Living With Depression

It can be difficult to live with someone who is depressed. The person might seem angry, upset or even abusive, and you may have no idea what has caused the change. Some men, as mentioned, may lash out at those they love in response to depressive symptoms, and those outbursts can be emotionally and physically dangerous. Teens who are experiencing depression may be difficult to separate from teens who are not depressed. After all, most teens are secretive, emotional and heavy sleepers. Teens with depression may seem sullen or hopeless, however, and they may vacillate between wanting your help and pushing you away. Again, this can be incredibly difficult to deal with as a parent.

Helping a parent experiencing depression can also be difficult. It can be hard for adult children to approach their parents and have a frank talk about something so private. In addition, our culture suggests that adults should be depressed or upset about growing older, so adult children may not consider depression in their parents to be abnormal or cause for concern. They may simply allow their parents to push them away, instead of providing help.

Therapy group in a circle

While depression isn’t contagious, per say, dealing with someone who is depressed can be emotionally distressing.

The family can seem strained and relationships can be pushed to the breaking point. That’s why getting help is so important, both for the depressed person and for those who care about that person. Through treatment, the whole family can heal.

Since depression often cripples the person’s ability to make decisions, family members often need to provide the push to treatment. Often, families accomplish this goal through a formal intervention. The depressed person listens to family members and friends read a series of letters about the depressive behavior, and the family then urges the depressed person to begin meaningful treatment. These meetings take weeks of planning to perfect, but they can be well worth the effort.

A Word About Suicide

Feeling hopeless, helpless and weak for long periods of time can lead to thoughts of suicide. The person may feel as though death is the only way to make the symptoms stop, and the person might truly believe that the world would be a better place without his or her presence.

People contemplating suicide may:
  • Behave recklessly, running yellow lights and walking in front of moving cars
  • Give away cherished possessions
  • Move from being low and depressed to seeming happy and cheerful
  • Talk about feeling trapped or hopeless
  • Tell people goodbye

These suicidal thoughts should be considered medical emergencies, as depressed people could act upon these ideas at a moment’s notice. If you’re planning to hold an intervention for someone due to depression and the person begins to exhibit these suicide warning signs, it’s time to put plans on hold and call 911. A person contemplating suicide needs emergency help right away, and the intervention can be held once the crisis has passed. This suicidal episode might also, by contrast, prompt a family to provide an intervention.

This can be considered a sign that the depression is spinning out of control and the person needs help in order to get better. If you have not yet planned an intervention and your loved one experiences a suicidal episode, it’s time to stage an intervention immediately after the crisis has passed.