Depression is sometimes referred to as the "common cold" of mood disorders. We use the term "depressed" to describe a wide range of emotions including feeling a little blue to feeling suicidal. When someone says they are feeling depressed, it can be difficult to know exactly what they mean because the word has been used so frequently in a non-clinical sense. Our cavalier use of the term has led to some people thinking that one can simply "snap out of depression." When it comes to clinical depression, snapping out of it is not possible. Recovery from depression requires treatment just like any other medical disorder. Yet there are many clinically depressed individuals who will not receive the treatment they need. And the cost may be the person’s life.
Untreated depression can, in some instances, lead to death. Although there may not be a direct causal link between depression and mortality, depression can play a huge factor in causing symptoms and behaviors leading to one’s demise. I am sure that many who read this are thinking about the link between depression and suicide. This is one way in which depression can ultimately take a life. In addition, depression is also associated with a host of medical problems and chronic illnesses. If the depression sufferer is not treating their depression, it is more likely that they are also neglecting their physical health. This neglect can sometimes lead to death. This was the case for a man named Donald Finch, whose seemingly sudden and unexplained death raised questions for chief medical examiner, Jan “Dr. G” Garavaglia.
The mysterious case of Donald Finch was highlighted on the television show, DR. G: MEDICAL EXAMINER, on the Discovery Health channel in an episode called "Wounded." Donald Finch was only 32-years old when he died and through the forensic autopsy it was discovered that he had previously been bedridden. He was so ill that he had bedsores and was wearing an adult diaper. The pressing question for the forensic examiner was what was causing a relatively young man to become so ill.
When Dr. G. took a look at this young man’s intestines, she was shocked. She found a massive blockage of impacted and hardened stool the size of a football in his colon. Bacteria began to leak into his body as his colon could not stand the pressure of the impacted stool and he died. This man must have been in extreme physical pain. How did he get to be in this life threatening position?
The key to Finch’s mysterious death was discovered when Dr. G interviewed Finch’s sister. She had been taking care of her brother following his divorce. Finch had a daughter though this marriage and had lost contact with her due to his ex-wife moving out of state. Faced with the possibility of never seeing his daughter again, Finch fell into a deep depression and basically lost his will to live. He remained in bed for weeks if not months at a time. This chronic immobility contributed to a sluggish intestine which eventually stopped working due to severe blockage. The show explained that escaping toxins into his bloodstream was the medical reason for Finch’s death. Yet the underlying causal factor for this tragic turn of events began with untreated depression. This story may seem dramatic but it does send a clear message that depression can be deadly.
Researchers are now finding a more direct link between clinical depression and chronic illness. In a recent study, published in the March issue of PLoS One, researchers from University of California San Francisco (UCSF) found that long-term chronic depression is linked to a greater likelihood of premature immune cell aging. What this translates to is that the longer you have depression, particularly untreated depression, the more likely it is for you to be predisposed to develop certain types of diseases and medical conditions. Chronically depressed individuals may be more prone to develop illnesses generally associated with old age including heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. You can read more about this study and an interpretation of the findings from this health news report from the University of California.
The message I hope you gain from reading this article is that clinical depression is not just a case of the blues but is a very serious matter. Untreated depression can result in a greater susceptibility to develop disease or a chronic medical illness. In some tragic cases, death can be the end result. Depression can be successfully treated. Don’t allow depression to rob you or your loved one of good health. Depression is not just in your head. Depression can affect all aspects of your life including your physical health. Reach out. Get help. It may save your life.