Expert patient Deborah Gray identifies the most common myths about depression and explains the real story.
It's all in your head. Only women get depressed. If you have depression, you're stuck with it for life.
Do any of these statements sound familiar? For all the misconceptions about clinical depression, it seems that there's a depression myth for every truth -- and this makes it difficult to get a real sense of the illness and its capacity to be treated.
Perhaps part of the problem stems from our vocabulary for moods and mental illness: We use "depression" to describe so many ranges of experience that the meaning of clinical depression can get lost in the mix. Furthermore, because simple bad moods are a universal experience, many people think if they've had the blues, they know all about depression.
Here are the depression myths that I've heard the most, and the truth behind these misconceptions:
- Myth: Depression is not a real medical illness.
Clinical depression is a serious medical condition that affects not only an individual's mood and thoughts, but also the individual's body. Research has shown that depression has genetic and biological causes. Individuals coping with depression have a higher level of stress hormones present in their bodies, and the brain scans of depression patients show decreased activity in some areas of the brain.
- Myth: Even if depression is a medical illness, there's nothing that can be done about it.
Depression is treatable, and more than 80 percent of individuals with depressive disorders improve with treatment. As new medications and treatments are discovered, the number should continue to rise.
The first step to finding effective treatment is to get a physical examination by a doctor to rule out other causes for your symptoms, such as thyroid problems. Once you've been diagnosed with depression, you and your doctor will decide on a course of treatment, which will include medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both.
- Myth: Depression is no different from getting the "blues" - and this is just a normal part of life.
Equating depression with the blues is like saying that a common cold is the same as pneumonia. Everyone gets the blues or blahs from time to time, usually in reaction to disappointment or an upsetting event, or sometimes in reaction to something as simple as a rainy day. But the blues only last a day or two. Depression, on the other hand, can last a lifetime, and the illness is much more pervasive and disabling. No one commits suicide because they have the blues.
- Myth: People who think they have depression are just feeling sorry for themselves.
Depression affects about 19 million people annually in the U.S. alone. Some of the most prominent and well-known individuals who have suffered from a depressive disorder include Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Patton, abolitionist John Brown, Robert E. Lee, Florence Nightingale, Sir Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, J.P. Morgan, Barbara Bush, Ludwig von Beethoven and Michelangelo. Not exactly people who just sit around feeling sorry for themselves.
- Myth: You can will depression away. If you can't, then you're weak.
Depression cannot be willed away any more than heart disease or diabetes can. It's caused by chemical changes in the body, which cannot be overcome simply by positive thinking and grim determination. Given how much stigma is still attached to mental illness, seeking help for depression is an act of courage and strength -- not weakness -- on your part.
- Myth: Depression will go away by itself.
For extremely fortunate individuals, depression may go away by itself. But for the rest of us, depression can hang on for months, years or indefinitely. Depression can go away on its own, only to return in the future; once an individual has one episode of depression, they are predisposed to have more. Clinical depression is a potentially fatal disease - and suicide could be the end result of waiting for it to go away without any help.
- Myth: Depression is a normal part of getting older.
Depression is not a normal part of aging, but seniors do generally experience more of the events that can trigger depression: loss of family and friends, ill health, isolation and financial worries. Furthermore, people over the age of 60 grew up in an era in which mental illness was not discussed, and they may feel more shame about asking for help than someone from a subsequent generation.
The highest rate of suicide of any age group occurs in that of people 65 and older, with men being more vulnerable than women. It's imperative that seniors with depression seek help.
- Myth: Depression only affects women.
Although women report being affected by depression twice as much as men, depression certainly affects men as well. Often, clinical depression is underreported in men, particularly in cultures that discourage them from asking for help or showing any weakness. Furthermore, men have a higher rate of successful suicide attempts than women, so it is crucial that men seek help for their symptoms.
- Myth: Depression does not affect children or teenagers -- their problems are just a part of growing up.
We'd like to believe that all children experience a happy, carefree childhood, but that's simply not the case. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, studies show that 1 in 33 children and 1 in 8 adolescents are depressed in any given year. Children are not as practiced at articulating their feelings as adults, so adults must take the initiative to look for and notice symptoms of depression in children.
Read about depression and teens.
- Myth: If someone in your family suffers from depression, you will inherit it.
In the same way that you can be genetically predisposed to high blood pressure or diabetes, you can be genetically predisposed to depression. This does not mean, however, that if a family member has a history of depression, you are fated to suffer from it as well. Just be aware that your chances of having depression are higher than if you had no family history of the illness, and seek treatment if you start to develop symptoms.