What is depression?
Depression is now an everyday term used to describe a general feeling of sadness. However, it is a medical term that describes a mental illness characterised by persistent low moods that interfere with one’s quality of life, activities, abilities, and relationship with others. These moods usually last for some time, typically for around two weeks, and then reoccur.
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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 300 million people suffer from clinical depression. This number is believed to be an underestimation as depression is usually underdiagnosed due to a lack of presentation at healthcare facilities. Depression affects both men and women, but women are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease.
What does depression look like?
Depression comes in different forms, and people present with different symptoms. These symptoms are usually mental, but sometimes present physically. The following are common symptoms of people who are depressed:
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- Persistent low moods: sadness, anxiety, or a feeling of emptiness
- Loss of joy in previously pleasurable activities
- Poor sleep patterns: waking up early and being unable to go back to sleep or oversleeping
- Loss of interest in taking up new skills or hobbies
- Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and pessimism
- Decreased energy levels and constant fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness
- Easily annoyed, bothered, or angered
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Increased intake of alcohol
- Suicidal thoughts and, in some cases, suicide attempts
- Constant physical symptoms that do not get better with treatment, such as headaches, upset stomach, and pain that refuses to go away.
There is no known single cause of depression. Depression is a product of a multiplicity of factors—genetics, trauma, brain biology, death, relationships—that play different roles in its development. Depression can co-exist, worsen, and be worsened by serious medical illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
How can you help a friend or family member with depression?
In caring and providing support for someone with depression, it is important to note that there are no easy fixes nor instant solutions. This means you have to be ready to expend both time and energy; patience is key here. As aforementioned, the affected person typically may avoid friends, family and colleagues and may refuse to ask for help even though this is the one time they need the help and support of loved ones the most. In rare cases, they may come directly to ask for help. When this happens, the following are tips on how you can help:
- Help them seek professional help: This is the first step to take because depression, like any illness, requires the input of healthcare professionals in its management. You should encourage your loved one to seek professional help. This is better received when you assure them that is will help.
- Listen to them: This is a very important step in helping a loved one with depression. When they open up to you about aspects of their lives they have concerns about, listen to them and, if they ask this of you, help them work out ways to make beneficial changes. Do not impose your thoughts or beliefs. Be as objective as humanly possible. Listen with sympathy, show that you are giving them your full attention, and be available when they want to talk.
- Check-in with them: This can be done virtually or physically, especially if they live alone. You should enlist the help of other friends or family to ensure they do not isolate themselves. It is also helpful to find out what triggers their episodes (in persons with recurrent depression) and see how to avoid these triggers. You can also offer to help out with simple tasks around the house when you visit.
- Avoid blaming them: Blaming people with depression is counterproductive and may set them back and cause them to withdraw into themselves. It is also unhelpful to advise them to “get over it” or to “pull themselves together”. They are probably already blaming themselves, and criticism is likely to make them feel even worse.
- Be patient: This cannot be overemphasised. Even with professional help and treatment, it may take time before your loved one feels better. After the diagnosis is done and you know what type of depression the person suffers from, you should read about it so you will know what to expect and be able to provide better help.
- Caring for yourself: Offering help to a relative or loved one with depression is challenging and can take a toll on your health. It is imperative to also take care of yourself or seek help when you are overwhelmed.