What is Depression / Mental Illness

A lot of people equate depression with feeling sad, but depression is much more than that. Depression is a mental illness. One of the characteristics is feeling depressed or sad, but it also involves other symptoms. Among the symptoms of this mental illness are:

  • Loneliness even when part of a group
  • Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia or inability to get out of bed
  • Changes in eating habits ranging from not eating to overeating
  • Feeling hopeless, guilty, worthless, empty or helpless
  • Irritability or anger
  • Chronic aches or cramps with no medical cause
  • Restlessness
  • Thoughts or attempts at suicide

While most people have down days when they may experience one or more of these symptoms, the American Psychiatric Association suggests that a depression diagnosis should be limited to individuals who have experienced one or more of the symptoms continuously for at least two weeks.

This condition is considered an affect or mood disorder. It shares characteristics with several other mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. While some depressive episodes last a few days or weeks, some people suffer from chronically depressed feelings over the course of their entire lives.

Types of Depression

Not everyone suffers from the same version of this illness. Harvard Medical School identifies four types of depressed states that are common to both men and women and two that are specific to women:

Major depression

is a state of overwhelming dark mood that is all-encompassing. People suffering from this type lose interest in activities they once enjoyed and may have a hard time functioning on a daily basis. They are at great risk of suicide.

A persistent depressive disorder

is also known as dysthymia. This type of disorder lasts for at least two years and resembles major depression, but the person does not experience the symptoms as acutely. They are still able to function on a daily basis although they may not find much joy in life.

Bipolar disorder

is also known as manic-depressive disease. People suffering from bipolar disorder face periods of extreme highs followed by extreme lows. This pattern cycles. They may experience extreme periods of high energy, grandiose ideas, and unreasonably high self-esteem before spiraling into deeply depressed episodes when they may not have the energy to get out of bed and lack the self-confidence to handle even simple tasks.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD

is typically seen during the shorter days of fall and winter. With shorter days comes less sunlight. Sunlight has been found to interact with the body’s chemistry to elevate a person’s mood. Without that sunlight, some people may suffer a short-term version of this disorder.

Perinatal depression

also known as postpartum depression, relates to both major and minor depressive episodes revolving around pregnancy or the birth of a child. These episodes may last for as long as 12 months after the birth of a child.

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD

is a type of depression many women experience from shortly prior to ovulation until menstruation starts. It is a severe version of premenstrual syndrome or PMS.

Causes of Depressive Episodes

As with many mental illnesses, more than one factor can be attributed to causing depressive episodes. Some people inherit a predisposition for this illness while others suffer from a hormone imbalance as seen with perinatal depression or PMDD. Others suffer from a brain chemistry imbalance that affects how well the neurotransmitters work in mood stabilization. Biological differences in the brain also account for depressed emotions.

While people may be predisposed to this illness, there are often triggering events. Some common triggers include:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Job loss
  • Obesity
  • Divorce or relationship breakup
  • Overwhelming debt
  • Fear of letting others down or of what other people will think
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Abuse, violence or neglect
  • Relocating
  • Medical diagnosis
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Changes in diet or sleep habits
  • Isolation
  • Increased stress in day-to-day life

Adverse Health Behaviors

Left untreated, depression can lead to other unhealthy behaviors. For example:


May give someone suffering from this mental illness temporary relief from the symptoms at the cost of their physical health. Experts have determined that the nicotine in cigarettes stimulates brain receptors. This stimulation enhances mood and decreases depressed feelings.

Lack of physical activity

Can be an indicator of this mental illness. When a person feels tired all the time or lacks drive or interest in activities, it is not unusual for physical activity to lapse, which can lead to obesity. On the other hand, increased physical activity is a great mood enhancer and can help someone who is depressed overcome their mental illness.

Alcohol and drug consumption

Are frequent self-medication techniques for persons suffering from this condition as they try to escape the negative feelings that overshadow their lives. They do not take into consideration that prolonged drug and alcohol use can be detrimental to their physical health, and in some cases, alcohol and drugs actually increase the negative symptoms.

Sleep deprivation

Is often the result of this condition. Lack of sleep can affect the overall health of an individual and increases the likelihood for such problems as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Prevention Is Key

While most experts agree that this mental illness cannot be prevented, steps can be taken to lessen the effects:

  • Develop good tactics to deal with stress, such as yoga and meditation.
  • Build self-esteem.
  • Enjoy plenty of sunshine.
  • Stay organized and create a detailed routine.
  • Get ample sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise.
  • Recognize the signs for depression and get help before they become debilitating.
  • Enjoy less social media time and more face-to-face time with friends and family.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption and recreational drug use.
  • Remain true to a treatment plan by attending all therapy appointments and taking medication even when feeling good.
  • Connect with other people who can provide support, such as friends, family or a mental illness support group.
  • Avoid making major decisions during a depressive episode.
  • Practice thinking positively.
  • Avoid toxic people or situations.

Family and Friends

This mental illness also affects family and friends. They are stuck on the outside, seeing their loved ones suffering and their personalities changing. Children may feel neglected when their parents cannot get out of bed. Spouses may experience frustration when they must take up the responsibilities of the depressed spouse. Parents may be at a loss to understand why their straight-A student is now failing.

First and foremost, remember that depression is a mental illness. It is real and is as important to receive treatment as high blood pressure, diabetes or a broken limb. Your loved one is not lazy or faking it to get out of work. They need your help and support.

Additional steps that can be taken include the following:

    • Learn as much as you can about the condition and how to treat it, which may include psychotherapy and medication.
    • Avoid trying to cure the illness alone. Just like you would go to a doctor if you had a physical illness, you need to depend on a qualified doctor or therapists to diagnose the mental illness and create a treatment plan.
    • Create a low-stress environment. Avoid pressuring them back into a routine they may not be ready for. Take steps to help create a new routine. For example, set up reminders on their phone for when to take their medication or to pay bills. Help them organize their home so that they can find things.
    • Ask your loved one how you can help. This is especially important if they already have a diagnosis and know what to expect from depressive episodes. They may need something as simple as someone to help them clean up or put groceries in the refrigerator. They may need someone to talk to about what is worrying them. They may just need to know they are loved.
    • Create a support network both to help you as a caregiver and to help your loved one. Think of this disorder as a boulder you are trying to roll uphill. Alone, the task is almost impossible, but with a support network’s help, the job becomes easier.
    • Listen without judgment, and be aware they are not necessarily asking you to fix anything. Of course, if it is something easy and necessary to their life, like cooking a meal or cleaning their apartment, then help. But often, your loved one just needs to know they are being heard while they work out the thought processes that are clogging their head.
    • Take threats of harm seriously. Suicide is a very real and final side effect of depression. If your loved one is threatening suicide, avoid leaving them alone. Removed all sharp objects, weapons, and medication from the home, and call a suicide hotline or mental health professional for crisis intervention. You can also call 911.
    • Use positive enforcement to help build your loved one’s self-esteem and to keep them on a treatment plan.
    • Make it easy on your loved one to stay on a treatment plan. You may want to offer to go with them to therapy sessions or pick up prescriptions for them.
    • Take care of yourself. When you board an airplane, as part of the emergency procedures, you are told to put on your oxygen mask before helping others. The same is true when caring for someone with this illness. Remember to eat. Take personal time to unwind and refocus. Get plenty of sleep and be cognizant of what you can and cannot do. If you burn out or fall into your own depressed state, you will be unable to help your loved one.

Remember that the only person you can control is yourself. No matter how much you want to protect your loved one, you cannot hold yourself accountable for their actions. You have probably heard the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” The same holds true with trying to force someone with a mental illness to abide by a treatment plan. You can offer them help. You can take them to a therapist and pay for their medication, but you cannot force them to take the steps to get better. If the situation is dire, you may need to seek professional or legal help to prevent them from harming themselves or others.

Many people who have experienced depression describe it as being down a deep, dark well where there is no way out. Fortunately, there are ways out. With therapy, medication, and self-care, you can curb the effects of this illness and lead a normal life. You have taken the first step by learning more about mental illness and prevention. Now is the time go further and put what you have learned into practice.