Health beat: Major depression is not just being sad

Published 6:06 pm Friday, October 28, 2016

As the holidays are quickly approaching, there is a sense of joy and happiness surrounding the upcoming season. However, for some these times can be dismal especially if you struggle with major depression. There are some myths associated with this disease. Let’s explore some of them.

First of all, having major depression is not just being sad. It is a syndrome consisting of symptoms that usually will impede the daily function of a person. To meet the criteria of major depression a patient must have a minimum of the following symptoms for at least two weeks in duration: a persistent depressed mood and or loss of interest. This feeling is also accompanied by at least some of the following symptoms: poor appetite, which has been described by some patients as their “food not having taste.” A few patients will overeat to comfort their emotional pain. Another coping mechanism is for patients to sleep excessively in an attempt to avoid dealing with their life. Other patients become insomniacs and stay up worrying on how to cope with their current situation.

Hopelessness is also a very significant complaint made by patients who suffer from major depression. When a psychiatrist does a suicide risk assessment, it is usually asked of the patient if he or she feels hopeless. If so, then it means the patient’s depression is a more severe form of depression. In fact, research studies have demonstrated if a patient describes his or her life as hopeless, the risk of suicide increases significantly. The patient’s will to live is diminished. Even if a patient has everything going for him or her, this risk is still present.

Here are a few myths that need to be dispelled to shed some light on this illness.

Myth No. 1: “One must have something serious happen to you and your family to precipitate a depressive episode.” You do not have to have a significant life stressor to cause major depression. This is usually referred to as endogenous depression, meaning it comes from out of the blue without a life stressor.

Myth No. 2: “Patients can just snap out of being depressed.” This is probably one of the biggest complaints patients report to me. For someone who has not experienced clinical depression this may seem foreign to them. A non-depressed person may ask themselves why someone who may have everything be experiencing a major depressive episode. Trust me, if the patient could just snap out of it, they would have done it a long time ago. For every patient that gets discharged from a psychiatric hospital, there are many waiting to get in for treatment.

Myth No. 3: “Antidepressant medications are really happy pills.” First, antidepressants are not designed to make you happy. They, for the most part, do not get you “high.” If this were the case, there would be a black market. You just do not hear about “Prozac dealers” on the evening news.

What they are designed to do is to improve your mood to a level at which most people function. Since antidepressants cause the brain chemistry to change, they can take up to a few weeks to really start seeing a full effect on the patient. Also, some patients just do not like taking medications due to potential side effects. One third of patients never get their prescriptions for psychiatric medicines filled.

Myth No. 4: “Asking someone about suicide will make them suicidal. This might implant an idea in a depressed patient.” Nothing can be further from the truth. First, most patients who have suicidal thoughts do not kill themselves. In fact, speaking about it will lessen some of the shame patients may be experiencing. At times family members have a hard time speaking about suicide with another family member. I recommended just listening to them so the patient does not suffer in silence.

Hopefully this will shed some light on this debilitating disease. Depression is treatable. There is no shame in getting help for this illness. Just like a diabetic patient who needs insulin to treat diabetes, a depressed patient is no different. If you or someone you care about has these symptoms, I urge you to get help.

Dr. Paul Garcia is a psychiatrist and the chief of staff at Vidant Beaufort Hospital.