Understanding depression: the myths and facts

The death of Robin Williams' highlights the importance of understanding depression

Like all mental health problems, there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding clinical depression. Part if this confusion arises from the fact that we all feel down or depressed sometimes, this is normal and is not the same as having depression.

Depression is long lasting low mood that affects your ability to do everyday things, feel pleasure, or take an interest in the things you normally enjoy. Symptoms can include feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness, and poor concentration.

It affects 1 in 10 of us at some point in our lives and according to the World Health Organisation, it is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Women are more likely to be diagnosed than men, but this could be because they are more likely to seek help.

While stressful life events and trauma can make depression more likely, it can affect anyone and it is not necessarily related to external events. It can therefore be extremely frustrating for people battling depression to be told they have ‘nothing to be depressed about’.

No one knows for sure what causes depression, and much more research still needs to be done. However, it is generally accepted that it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Depression tends to run in families. This could be because of genes, or it could be due to being exposed to other people's low moods.

Problems in childhood are thought to increase chances of depression, but many people who have had happy and stable childhood are still affected. Life events such as a break-up, death of a loved one or losing your job can sometimes be ‘triggers’ for the onset of depression.

There are things we can all do to safeguard our mental health in the same way we do for our physical health. Eating a balanced diet, getting exercise, limiting alcohol and having hobbies are all good for mental health and reduce chances of depression.

If you think you may be depressed, your first port of call should be your GP. Some GPs are better at dealing with mental health than others and if you don’t feel listened to, try booking an appointment with another doctor and taking someone you trust with you for support. You may also want to think about writing down how you are feeling and showing it to your GP if you find it hard to express verbally.

Depression is treatable and in many cases it is possible to fully recover, although some people will have episodes throughout their life. It is usually treated with a combination of medication and talking therapies, although medication should not be the first response to mild to moderate depression.

If someone you love is struggling with depression you may find it useful to learn more about the symptoms, treatments and self help techniques, so that you can encourage them to take the steps they need to get well. Offer emotional support, patience and encouragement, while also being mindful of your own mental health and taking care of yourself.

Simple things like spending time together and encouraging them to do things that once gave them pleasure can be really helpful. Just showing that you care and will listen without judgment, can be the most powerful thing of all.

Further information about depression is available at www.rethink.org and via the Rethink Mental Illness Advice and Information phone line on 0300 5000 927

Samaritans is available round-the-clock on 08457 90 90 90 or email: jo@samaritans.org

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