Vincent van Gogh's famous painting "On the Threshold of Eternity" is said to symbolize his struggle with depression, a mental disorder that affects around 15 million Americans each year.
But the condition that inspired some of van Gogh's most poignant work also took his life, underscoring the importance of dealing with depression before it takes over.
Surviving depression first requires an understanding of what it is -- as well as what it isn't. First, it is important to note that depression is not a character defect. A person with depression is not any less of a person. Second, depression is not a temporary mood. It is not a "down in the dumps" feeling, and it will not go away on its own. It is a long-term mental disorder affecting both mind and body. Furthermore, there are several types of depression, each of which requires an individualized plan of attack to conquer.
While the causes of depression are still a subject of research, scientists have learned that there are three primary factors at work. The National Institute for Mental Health, a research group focusing on the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses, says depression can be caused by genetic makeup, brain chemistry or environmental factors.
Studies have shown that a person's genetic code can make them more or less susceptible to depression. Genetics can affect the length of depression, as well as its depth. Scientists are still studying why some people seem to recover more quickly from depression, and why some people tend to relapse. One recent study even suggests that depression developed in the human genetic pool as a defense mechanism that increases creativity and resilience. More research will have to be done before the genetic side of depression is fully understood and a treatment for genetically-induced depression is developed.
Depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain is very common. When certain chemicals in the brain, called neurotransmitters, are at levels too high or too low, the signals these chemicals convey can be lost in translation. The three primary neurotransmitters identified as factors in depression are serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. These chemicals help relay messages concerning emotions, stress, sleep, appetite and sexuality. When these messages are not relayed properly, depression can quickly follow.
The third prevailing category of depression causes is environmental factors. This can mean a wide variety of things, such as a difficult relationship, loss of a loved one, trauma, or even poor weather. The common element, of course, is the way a person reacts to such stress. The many different environmental causes have their own associated types of depression, and the various causes can affect males and females of all ages differently.
The symptoms of depression are varied, and not everyone with depression will exhibit all of the symptoms. Long-term feelings of overwhelming sadness, hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, irritability, restlessness or emptiness can indicate depression. Additionally, many sufferers experience constant tiredness, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, cramps, headaches, digestive problems, and even thoughts of suicide. Because many of these symptoms are common to other medical conditions, it is important to consult a trained expert to discuss them.
Depression tends to affect women about twice as frequently as men, while age seems to be of less significance in predicting depression. Additionally, white people have statistically-higher rates of depression compared with other ethnic groups, though this may be skewed by factors that affect reporting among different groups.
The good news about depression is that there are treatments available, and each type of depression has its own specific treatment options. Consulting a trained expert is extremely important, since only a trained expert can properly diagnose and treat depression.
Unfortunately, there is no magic pill for depression caused by a person's genetic code. This type of depression, which is estimated to include a third of all cases, is generally resistant to antidepressants. However, seeking the help of a trained mental-health practitioner can provide tools to cope with difficult feelings. New research, in which scientists were able to breed depression-resistant mice, may offer hope for gene therapy as well.
While they may not work well in treating genetic depression, antidepressants can offer relief to people suffering from the effects of a chemically-imbalanced brain. Doctors may prescribe a variety of medicines, such as Prozac, Parnate, or Wellbutrin, each of which works differently in the brain to regulate neurotransmitters.
It is important to note that the effects of neurotransmitters in the brain are not fully understood. Scientists are still researching why both high or low levels of these chemicals can cause depression, why some people do not react to antidepressants, and why antidepressants can take weeks to have any effect. Continued communication with a trained expert is essential in tracking the effectiveness of antidepressants.
People taking antidepressants should be aware of the side-effects, which vary based on the type of medicine. In general, side-effects can include headaches, nausea, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, digestive problems, drowsiness, blurred vision and more. As with any medication, users should consult a trained expert when side-effects arise.
Another treatment, which has long been used to treat a variety of mental illnesses, seems to be rebounding from the negative stigma it has developed. Electroconvulsive therapy, also known as "electroshock therapy", may have gained a bad reputation in film and literature, but it is increasingly being recognized for the relief it may offer where other therapies fail. With this type of treatment, the subject receives an electrical stimulus that can vary in duration, strength or placement. The treatment is tailored to each specific case, and it is estimated that roughly 100,000 people in America receive this therapy each year.
Electroconvulsive therapy is not without side-effects, of course. Patients can experience disorientation, confusion, and short-term memory loss. These side-effects generally don't last long, however, and most patients display no long-term problems from the treatment.
Additionally, certain types of "talk-therapy" can help sufferers deal with stress more effectively. Cognitive-behavioral therapy emphasizes thinking positively and changing behaviors that may cause depression. Interpersonal therapy can help people deal with difficult relationships that may contribute to depression. For some people, therapy is enough to deal with depression, but for others, a combination of therapy and antidepressants may be necessary.
Depression can be a crushing illness, but it does not have to be. Understanding the condition and taking guided steps to cope with it can help nearly anyone survive depression. Through communication with a trained expert and an arsenal of treatment options, most cases of depression are highly treatable. No matter the cause, depression can be conquered, and the lives it affects can be reclaimed.