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According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) close to 19 million Americans or nearly 10% of the population suffers from depressive illness every year.
While it is normal to occasionally have a bad day or a passing case of the blues, persistent depression over weeks, months, or even years is caused by an imbalance in brain chemistry. Low levels of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, brain chemicals responsible for mood, are linked to depressive illness. Because persistent depression is caused by a chemical imbalance, a person suffering from severe depression cannot simply "snap out of it" as well-meaning loved ones often encourage. Depression is not a weakness but a treatable condition.
Depression affects the way a person feels physically, mentally and emotionally. Just as there are different types of the flu virus, there are different types of depression with varying symptoms and severity. Bouts of major depression may be experienced occasionally or once in a lifetime. This type of depression interferes with the ability to focus thereby affecting work, study and domestic activities. Sleep and eating disorders are common, with significant weight loss or gain. Fatigue and hopelessness may also be present, and a lack of caring about hobbies or interests once enjoyed.
A milder form of depression is dysthymia, characterized by a chronic malaise that is not disabling but nevertheless reduces quality of life. People who experience dysthymia also often experience periods of major depression.
A less common form of depression is biopolar-disorder, formerly called manic-depressive disorder. Bipolar-disorder is significantly different from other forms of depressive illness. Its symptomatic signature is marked by extreme lows, similar to major depression, that gradually turn into extreme highs, or manic behavior. After a time the high mood swing gravitates back to a low, and symptoms reverse. The cycle then repeats itself. At the high end of the bipolar swing, a person feels extremely capable with grandiose ideas and unnatural energy.
Signs of depression can vary in severity and can also change with time, and some people will only have a few symptoms while others might recognize quite a few. Some of the signs of depression might be: a feeling of emptiness, sadness, pessimism, hopelessness, fatigue, sleep disorders in the form of insomnia or over-sleeping, weight loss or weight gain, loss of interest in hobbies, decreased sexual drive, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, or persistent thoughts of death or suicide.
For mania signs may include: abnormal enthusiasm about impractical or grandiose ideas, feelings of euphoria, excessive talking and racing thoughts, decreased need for sleep, inappropriate social behavior, increased sexual drive, and lack of proper judgment.
Depression is often found to run in families, leading researchers to believe there is a genetic predisposition. However, this isn't always the case, as depression also strikes people with no known genetic history. Certainly many stressors like over-work, a troubling relationship, or a bereaved loss can trigger depression.
Both women and men experience depressive illness but twice as many women as men suffer from depression. If you recognize even a few of the signs of depression, contact your doctor. Treatment is readily available in the form of antidepressants, "talk" therapy, or other regimens, depending on your personal needs. You don't have to live with depressive illness. It can be treated and you can get back to being your old self soon!