10 Top Myths About Depression
Growing up, it always seemed to take me longer than my friends to manage feelings like sadness and disappointment. As a teenager, I regularly fell into funks that felt difficult to escape.
Finally, in my 20s, I decided to get help: I was diagnosed with dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder). Having a professional put a name and explanation to what I had been feeling for so many years was an incredible relief. I had a thing and, yes, that thing was depression.
Depression affects more than 300 million worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. It is far from a rare condition, yet the stigma remains. The best way to counter it? Education. Whether you’re suffering or have a loved one who is, these 10 myths and facts are a great place to start.
MYTH: You Can Snap Out of Depression.
Depression needs to be addressed like any other medical condition. If you broke your leg, would someone tell you to “snap out of it” to deal with the pain? Not likely. I vividly recall moments in college when friends encouraged me to “rally" to get through a tough time, but you can’t put a bandage on depression.
“Depression is a medical disorder that causes physiological changes in sleep, energy, appetite, and more,” says Gerald A. Maguire , M.D., chair of psychiatry and neuroscience at University of California Riverside. “ In fact, the name depression doesn’t really do it justice. It’s much more than that. This is a clinical diagnosis.”
MYTH: People with Depression are Always Sad.
Depression manifests in different ways, and feeling sad and despondent aren’t the only signs. In some people, depression causes irritability and anger; it can even trigger physical symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, and back pain.
The core symptoms, along with feelings of sadness and hopelessness, include: changes in sleep, appetite, and energy; guilty thoughts; low motivation; lack of pleasure in doing things; and changes in concentration, says Dr. Maguire. “Another thing I see so often is people not functioning well at work or school. They may be put on disability or get fired when, in fact, they have a treatable condition for which they just need to seek help.”
MYTH: It’s Possible to Push Through Depression on Your Own.
In 2017, the World Health Organization cited depression as the number one cause of disability in the world. It's not something that will just clear up, and not dealing with can lead to even more problems.
“Let’s say you have heart disease or cancer. If you have depression along with it, the condition increases all the risks and complications of your other medical illness," says Prakash Masand M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence, an organization in Durham, NC, that supports psychiatric treatment clinics. "If you don’t treat the depression, your other medical illnesses don’t get better.”
Even without another illness in the mix, untreated depression can spiral, increasing the risk for everything from substance abuse to suicide.
MYTH: Depression Affects Only the Brain.
This condition affects the whole body. “An alarming fact about untreated depression is that it kills, and not only because of suicide, which is an epidemic in the United States,” says Dr. Masand. “Depression also affects other systems in the body, including the cardiovascular system, which can lead to premature death.”
According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, heart-disease patients are twice as likely to suffer from depression, and on the flipside, people with depression have an increased risk of heart problems. Scientitsts attribute this, in part, to the way in which depression increases stress-hormone production, which makes it more difficult for the heart and arteries to respond to a demand for increased blood flow.
MYTH: Only Major Depression Requires Treatment.
There isn’t a certain threshold someone needs to reach before seeking professional help. As is the case with most medical conditions, depression affects people to varying degrees. When I was a teen, I was self-aware enough to know that my sadness and hopelessness wasn’t typical, but the last thing I wanted to do was talk to a stranger. Plus, committing to therapy felt like something only people with “real” problems would pursue.
In fact, plenty of people with depression appear to be just fine. They put on a happy face, get up, go to work, and do what they have to do. This type of high-functioning depression can sometimes make it even harder for people to get the help they need. "It’s hard to spot precisely because the people dealing with it look, from the outside, like they’re holding it all together," writes Annie Wright, founder and clinical director of Evergreen Counseling in Berkeley, CA. "This can lead to a lack of ability to self-identify (or have those around you identify you) as depressed and, moreover, a possible resistance to seeking treatment because of the stigma surrounding more 'typical' depression."
Here's the bottom line: If something doesn't feel right, see your doctor or check in with a therapist. It can't hurt, and can only help.
MYTH: Depression is Best Treated with Medication.
There are many different types of treatment that can help someone cope with depression. “For some people, a simple intervention like increasing your level of exercise or getting better sleep, may be all that’s necessary,” says Dr. Masand. “For others it might be a few sessions of psychotherapy. Some may need antidepressants.” Or a combination of all three. For me, I’ve found a relatively low-dose antidepressant paired with talk therapy has helped immensely.
MYTH: Friends Can’t Help Friends Who are Depressed.
Empathy is more important than ever. It may sound ridiculous, but there are people who take the tough love approach with a friend or loved one struggling with depression. When friends would tell me “not to wallow” or to “move on” from whatever I was feeling at the time, I felt as though my problems were being dismissed. While it’s true that depression is best treated by a professional, friendship can go a long way in making a person who's suffering feel supported and safe. Dr. Maguire suggests approaching him or her in a way that isn’t confrontational, but connected.
If you see behaviors in a friend that have you worried, reach out gently and ask how they're really doing. Share what has you concerned, and ask if you can help them figure out what might help. Or simply ask if they want company. Just being with someone who cares can help a lot!
MYTH: Depression Only Occurs When Something Bad Happens in Your Life
While it's true that stressful experiences like the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or a breakup can contribute to the onset of depression, many times there isn't an external trigger. In fact, the causes of depression are extremely complex. Your family history, your temperament, your brain physiology, and more can influence whether you develop a mood disorder like depression.
While genetics definitely play a role, scientists have yet to find The Depression Gene, says Matthew Keller, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who worked on one such study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. “We're not saying that depression is not heritable at all. It is,” he says. “What we are saying is that depression is influenced by many, many genetic variants, and individually each of those has a minuscule effect.”
MYTH: Only Women Experience True Depression.
It’s hard to say how depression came to be thought of as an ailment that only affects women, but it isn’t true. According to the American Psychological Association, 30.6 percent of men have suffered from a period of depression in their lifetime. What does often differ, however, is how the condition presents. For example, JAMA Psychiatry published a study revealing that men tend to experience more anger, aggression, substance abuse, and risk-taking compared to women.
MYTH: Kids Can’t Be Depressed.
Adults may look back on childhood as that dreamy time when they lived without a care in the world. It may be a time of innocence and exploration, but that doesn’t mean young minds can’t have deep, concerning thoughts. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children can be diagnosed with clinical depression as early as three years old. The CDC reports that 3.2% of children aged 3 to 17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have been diagnosed with depression, but they point out that these diagnoses are more common with increased age.
The symptoms are similar to those in adults, but according to KidsHealth.org,, "It can be hard for parents and other adults to know when a child is depressed. An irritable or angry mood might seem like a bad attitude or disrespect. Low energy and lack of interest might look like not trying."
Fortunately, there is ongoing research about the best practices for treating the condition in young kids, like a study funded by the National Institutes of Health that helped develop an effective intervention method focusing on the parent-child relationship. If you think your child may be suffering from depression, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is a wonderful resource for finding professional help.