According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than 17 million Americans suffer from depression every year. Depression is an illness that may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Some researchers believe that chemical is seratonin. Others have discovered that a tendency to experience depression runs in families and may be inherited like many other diseases.

Depression may also be caused after an upsetting event, such as a death, divorce or loss of a job. Serious or chronic physical illness or major surgery may trigger depression, too. Prescribed medications, including hormones and birth control pills, may also bring on depression, or make it worse. But other types of depression persist and begin to affect the ability to perform daily activities. Depression may also happen at any time, even without a specific event to be depressed about.

Depression is a medical illness that affects how people think, feel, and behave. Many people with depression go undiagnosed for years. It is important that people with symptoms of depression seek medical help, either from their doctor or more from a psychiatrist. Often, a family member, friend, or employer must convince the person to seek help. There is, however, hope for people with depression. Once the illness is properly diagnosed, treatment can help many patients return to more healthy and productive lives.

During depression a person’s mood may be described as sad, blue or unhappy. Self-esteem is low, thoughts are negative and they may lose the ability to experience pleasure. Concentrating and decision-making may be difficult. Anxiety and agitation are common features of depression, although some depressed people are too drained of energy to be either agitated or anxious.

Symptoms of depression are as follows:

  • Sad, scared, hopeless, empty, irritable or blue for weeks or months at a time
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much. Waking up early before 5 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Crying often or for no reason
  • Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Thoughts of death and suicide

Depressive symptoms vary from person to person and not everyone will have all or the same symptoms. A depressive episode may last for two weeks or longer. Depression can affect how you feel about other people. Many times a depressed person is no longer interested in being with others, in talking to people or doing things with their family. Sometimes family members will tell the depressed person to “get over it,” which can make the depressed person feel worse.

Until recently, many people thought that suffering from the depression was a sign of weakness or a character flaw. Some people were unwilling to admit they were depressed. Today, most people realize that depression is an illness like any other and can be treated with medicines. Getting treatment is the best way to get better.

There are many medicines available for depression (called anti-depressants). It takes two or more weeks for these medicines to really take affect and generally people feel better four to six weeks after beginning to take the appropriate medication. In addition to medicines, psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is often involved. Many people with depression are helped by meeting with a health professional trained to discuss their problems. There are many types of professionals with whom to talk. They include social workers, psychologists, or physicians who specialize in treating psychiatric disorders (psychiatrists).

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