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Depression – Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Across all mental disorders, depression remains the second most common on a global scale (1). Similar to many mental illnesses, there is no singular way to experience depression. Depression can manifest in many different ways. The causes of depression can also vary from person to person, and there are multiple ways to approach the treatment of depression (2). Depression can be a severe and debilitating disorder, so, it is important to understand what the symptoms, causes and treatments might be so we can help ourselves and the people we care about.

What is depression?

In its simplest form, depression is categorized as a mood disorder in which feelings of extreme sadness and emptiness are persistent. Depression hinders an individual’s ability to function ‘normally’ through low moods and cognitive struggles. The term depression encompasses a range of sub-category disorders, with the most common being Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). The World Health Organization estimates that 5% of adults across the world will be experiencing depression at any given time. Although people will inevitably experience some periods of low moods and sadness throughout their lifetime, the distinction of depression falls in the persistence of these feelings, usually for a period of 2 or more weeks. Along with the persistent presence of a depressed or extremely sad mood for more than 2 weeks, the other symptom criteria used to diagnose depression according to the DSM-V include:

  • Increased feelings of irritation and emptiness.

  • A loss of pleasure and interest in activities you once enjoyed.

  • An increase or decrease in appetite or weight.

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia) or undersleeping (insomnia).

  • Reduction in psychomotor ability (talking or moving slowly) and cognitive impairment, such as a lack of concentration, decision making and memory trouble.

  • Reduction of energy and increased fatigue.

  • Increased feelings of guilt or worthlessness and hopelessness.

These symptoms are used as the main defining features of depression, however, depression is an extremely complex disorder that can be experienced in different ways and other symptoms may occur depending on the individual. Specific symptom severity may also range from person to person.

What causes depression?

There is no one specific cause of depression, however, there are some significant risk factors that have been linked to the occurrence of depression, such as;

  • Adverse life events and environmental factors – Individuals who have experienced difficult life events and negative environmental situations, such as an altered or unstable childhood and family life, bereavement, unemployment, financial stress, neglect, abuse, bullying, or other traumatic events may be at risk for developing depression.

  • Brain Chemistry – Some individuals who are at risk of developing depression may be experiencing chemical imbalances in their brain and lacking the chemicals that are responsible for managing mood and behavior control.

  • Genetic history – If someone in your family has a history of depression, there is a higher likelihood it may be passed down to future generations.

  • Medical conditions – Depression has high comorbidity of occurring with a range of other physical and mental conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, chronic illness and disease.

Depression often hinders the way an individual can function day to day through cognitive and emotional struggles. However, depression is treatable. There are multiple ways to approach the treatment for depression. Some treatments include, but are not limited to:

  • Psychotherapy/Talking Therapies – This form of treatment is extremely common when dealing with depression. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is facilitated by a therapist, counsellor, or psychologist. CBT helps individuals recognize negative or distorted ways of thinking. It also helps with developing coping strategies and problem-solving techniques to approach thinking, emotions, and behaviors more positively.

  • Behavioral Activation – Behavioral activation is based on the idea that pleasurable or meaningful actions can help improve mental health. More specifically, it aims to get individuals to practise positively rewarding activities to increase positive emotions and thoughts. It also increases the level of positive activity your brain is doing overall, which has been linked to improvements in mental health (3). People in better moods are more likely to exert more brain activity towards things like relationships and spending time with others, taking on new tasks, and completing more activities. So, in turn, this creates a positive feedback loop and aims to improve well-being.

  • Medication – In more moderate to severe cases, medication can be used to treat depression, often in the form of serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This type of medication typically works to balance out brain chemistry and help the stabilization of serotonin (4). When seeking this form of treatment, it is essential to consult with a doctor first.

If you or someone you love is experiencing depression, it is important to remember that you are not alone and there is always help and treatments out there to support your journey.

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