One of the many things mental health providers do each day helps patients and their families understand that depression is a medical illness. We’re not just talking about sadness – a normal, human emotion. Sadness is something we are supposed to feel – for example our best friend moves away; a beloved family pet passes away, or a relationship ends badly. I think we can all agree that being sad isn’t any fun, but it is a feeling we are supposed to have. It’s a normal, human response to something we wish wouldn’t have happened.
Depression, however, is different. While it’s true that sadness can be part of depression, depression is much more. Some of the warning signs of depression are:
- Feeling hopeless, like things will never get better
- Feeling helpless, like nothing is going to help
- Losing interest in activities that used to be fun – sort of an overall feeling of “why bother?”
- Physical aches and pains, like stomach aches or headaches.
- Problems sleeping – sometimes sleeping too much and sometimes sleeping too little
- Overeating or not eating at all
- Recurring thoughts of self-harm, death or suicide
Health care providers take a close look at all of this, especially if these indicators have lasted for more than a couple of weeks, and certainly if there is any type of suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
A word about suicidal ideation is necessary here. I think it’s important for patients and families to understand that, in order to be diagnosed with depression, a patient does not have to be considering ending their life. Suicidal thinking, or any type of self-harming behavior, is definitely one clear indicator that providers ask about. But it is not the only symptom we look for. As noted in the list above, there are other things we must consider. In addition, we look at family history, family dynamics, trauma history, relationship concerns, spiritual and social supports, and a host of other components, such as chronic pain or other medical issues. As providers, we look at the whole picture – the whole person - in order to make decisions regarding the diagnosis and treatment of depression, or any mental health condition.
It's important to be aware of the symptoms of depression (or other mental illnesses) in yourself or a loved one and when these symptoms are noticed to let a trusted individual know, so help can be sought before the situation balloons into a potentially bigger problem. According to Everyday Matters (note: September is National Suicide Prevention Month), "90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death."
The good news – in fact, the great news – about managing depression and other mental health concerns is that there is a lot of help available. Remember - depression is a medical illness, so receiving help for depression is no different than getting professional help to manage diabetes, high cholesterol or sleep apnea.
I frequently talk with my patients about how fortunate we are to live in a time when there are such amazing advancements in medications. And these advancements are happening every day. Psychiatrists and other medical providers are constantly learning new ways to help their patients. Therapists are also always learning about new ways to help their patients. Our number one job is to help our patients reach their goals of recovery by overcoming obstacles and increasing resiliency.
If you, or someone you care about, is struggling with how to deal with depression or any mental health concern, please reach out for help. Even if you’re not sure, it’s okay to reach out and get your questions answered. Here are a few phone numbers that can help:
Lasting Hope Recovery Center: (402) 717-HOPE (4673)
National Suicide Prevention Line: (800) 273-TALK (8255)
National Alliance on Mental Illness: (800) 950-NAMI (6264)
As always, please take care of yourself. You are worth the effort.