“Depression” is a word we hear often. It’s used to describe everything from the Breakup Blues to the look your dog gives you when you leave for work. With so much use, it’s understandable that the true meaning of “depression” might have gotten lost. Let’s clear that up a bit.
What is Depression?
Depression (officially known as Major Depressive Disorder) is a mental health disorder that negatively impacts the way we think, feel, and act. It’s different than the sadness and disappointment that is a normal part of life for everyone. In mild cases, depression can be a slight, persistent, nagging sadness and a perception that something just isn’t quite right. In severe cases, it can require hospitalization and years of treatment. Depression can last a few weeks, months, or even decades. It can pop up only once, or it can ebb and flow over a lifetime in multiple depressive episodes. In all cases, it reduces positive experiences, amplifies negative experiences, and reduces overall quality of life. Simply put, depression gets in the way of everything that makes you, you, and that’s a scary thing.
Depression impacts our thoughts by making it difficult to think, focus, and stay motivated. It also distorts our perceptions of things. People with depression often describe feeling foggy-headed, distractible, and zoned out. Depression also encourages us to focus on negative things, and discount positive things. Negative thoughts could be geared towards ourselves (“Ugh! I’m so stupid!”), towards others (“My friend hasn’t texted in a while. She must not genuinely care about me.”), or towards life in general (“This is so unfair! Why do bad things always happen?”) Sometimes, depression makes us downright irrational, rejecting evidence and creating belief systems that don’t hold up to logic.
Depression negatively impacts our feelings, too. Depression can make us feel sad, angry, guilty, hurt, or even feel nothing at all. An important symptom of depression is called anhedonia, which is a fancy way of saying a person doesn’t find fun things fun anymore. All of these negative feelings often come up without any apparent reason, making them difficult to manage.
With our thoughts and feelings all jumbled up, depression can significantly affect the way we act. It can change our sleep patterns and appetite, and make us seem like a totally different person in how we talk to people. It can drain away our energy to even move. Instead of joining friends for the weekly D&D meetup, we’d rather stay in bed all day. Instead of cooking up our favorite meals from Shokugeki, we’d sooner order takeout and stare at a blank wall.
Normal Feelings Versus Depression
All of us have felt sad, lonely, helpless, or hopeless that some point in our lives, but depression is different. A depressive episode has three main differences from what we would consider “normal” experiences: duration, impact, and cause. A depressive episode must last at least two weeks (duration), must cause significant distress or impairment in day-to-day functioning (impact), and isn’t usually directly caused by a specific event or medical condition.
For example, if a child (let’s call him “Tim”) learns that his parents are getting a divorce, we can expect him to be significantly distressed for more than two weeks. He could struggle for months as a he learns to understand his new family dynamic. In this case, Tim is not having a depressive episode: he’s going through a normal adjustment process. His understandable negative feelings are the direct result of a life event.
However, let’s say this divorce was rough, and Tim grew up struggling. Years later, he finds it hard to trust people. He feels isolated and alone. He sleeps all the time, doesn’t have friends, and he’s convinced that things will never get better. While we might trace his feelings back to his parents’ divorce, Tim’s current state isn’t a direct result of the divorce. In this case, we might say that Tim is having a depressive episode.
What Causes Depression?
Like most mental health concerns, there are biological, psychological, and social causes for depression. Depression could be caused by any combination of these factors, and it’s important to note that none of them are the fault of the person suffering from depression.
- Biological – Depression can be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. If these brain chemicals (like serotonin and dopamine) are out of whack, it can impact everything from decision-making and managing emotions to sleep and appetite.
- Psychological – Depression can be caused by feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, lack of purpose, and others. One major root cause of depression is feeling helpless: the feeling that, no matter what you do, you can’t escape your situation or make things better for yourself. And when depression compromises your ability to think clearly, feeling helpless can be a serious hurdle to overcome.
- Social – Depression can be caused by feelings of loneliness, alienness, prejudice, or persecution. This can happen on a small scale, like not having any close friends, or on a large scale, like experiencing a lifetime of oppression because of your race, gender, religion, or other identities.
You might notice that these causes of depression look a lot like symptoms of depression. That’s because they are. Depression can create a nasty feedback loop: problems cause depression, which causes more problems, which makes the depression even worse, causing even more problems. That’s why it’s so important to stay in tune with yourself, notice the warning signs, and get help to stop the cycle.
You might be thinking of someone who’s struggling. Maybe it’s a friend, a colleague, or maybe yourself. The chances are pretty likely you know someone, as nearly 7% of the US population (1 in 15 people) experiences a depressive episode in any given year, and around 17% of the US population (1 in 6 people) will experience a depressive episode at some point in their life.
At Take This, one of our main goals is to help people to get connected with the help they need.
Whether you’re concerned about yourself or someone you care about, we’re here to help. Remember: it’s dangerous to go alone — so Take This list of resources we’ve put together to get you connected: http://www.takethis.org/mental-health-resources/
Thanks for taking the time to educate yourself. We’re glad to be here to support you <3
Dr. Lea Hughes is a veteran volunteer and contributor to Take This.
This article is not a substitute for medical advice or professional counseling. While we at Take This want to provide you with resources, we do not recommend or endorse any particular site, treatment, therapy, or resource. We provide these links at our sole discretion but have not necessarily vetted or reviewed any particular resource. We assume no liability for the use of the information or resources on these sites and encourage you to use your own best judgment when reviewing these resources.
If you live in the US and you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or call/text 988. If you’re outside the US, you can find local crisis lines at Suicide.org. If you’re even debating whether you should call them, you should call them. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline handles all psychological crises, not just suicide.