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Depression is more than 'the blues'
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What is the difference between depression and a simple case of "the blues?"

It's perfectly healthy to feel sad from time to time. It is normal for our emotions and behaviors to react to situations involving disappointment, stress and loss on occasion, and it would be abnormal not to react to these types of situations.

In a healthy person, periods of sadness, moodiness or melancholy should fade as time passes or as the person learns to cope with the issues behind his/her emotions. Depending on the situation, feelings that continue to linger for two weeks or longer may be a sign of something more serious. A key to understanding the difference between normal periods of sadness and clinical depression is the level of impairment the individual experiences as a result of these feelings. Different arenas of life, including work, family, and personal relationships, can be negatively impacted if these feelings are not being managed well. When this occurs, professional mental health services can assist people in improving their lives and returning to a state of health.

Depression: more than "the blues"

Depression, in the clinical context, is much more complex and serious than simply feeling down. It is a serious medical illness that doesn't necessarily pass on its own or with time. Despite what some people may believe, ongoing depression is unrelated to laziness, self-pity or lack of willpower.

Depression appears to be linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain that interferes with normal communication between cells. Depression is often accompanied by serious mental, emotional and physical symptoms. These symptoms are often powerful enough to interfere with a person's daily routine, relationships, career and overall ability to function in society.

Symptoms of depression

People suffering from depression might experience or display symptoms differently, but chances are, they are dealing with the effects of their illness on a regular basis. Common symptoms of depression are:

• ongoing sadness, anxiety or frequent crying spells

• feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, irritability or restlessness

• tiredness or fatigue

• loss of interest in activities or hobbies

• loss of concentration, memory, and decision-making skills

• change in sleeping patterns (experiences insomnia or sleeps all the time)

• change in eating habits (loss of appetite or overeating)

• suicidal thoughts or attempts at suicide

• ongoing pains, headaches, or digestive problems

A person diagnosed with depression may not experience all of the above symptoms, as age, gender, and numerous other factors can influence how a person experiences this illness. Use of substances such as alcohol and drugs can exacerbate feelings of depression.

Who is most at risk

Depression appears to have a hereditary link, and it often begins between ages 15 and 30. Gender also may play a role, as it is much more common in women.

Sometimes depression is linked to or triggered by certain factors or life events, not to say everyone who experiences these "triggers" will experience clinical depression. These may include:

• giving birth (postpartum depression)

• enduring chronic illness or pain

• experiencing a traumatic event (loss of loved one, abuse, stress, relationship problems)

• taking certain medications

• abusing drugs or alcohol

• failing to get enough sunlight (often tied to seasonal affective disorder)

Getting help for depression

People experiencing symptoms of depression should discuss this with their primary care physician, who can also refer them as needed for treatment. They can also contact a licensed mental health professional, which includes professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, psychiatric nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers.

While antidepressants may be needed to properly treat the condition, therapy and lifestyle changes alone may be effective in helping a person recover from depression. Treatment of depression can include taking medication, engaging in psychotherapy, or both. The form of treatment used is based on each patient's individual situation and needs; however, studies clearly indicate the most effective course of treatment is one that involves both. People who are receiving treatment for depression should work closely with their healthcare provider, openly discuss their symptoms and progress, and report any side effects related to their medication.

People experiencing depression may feel helpless against their illness, and that is one of the key reasons it is crucial to seek help. If left untreated, depression can continue for months or even years. In some cases, depression can facilitate the most serious of risks-suicide. Treatment can help limit the progression and duration of depression, and it can also help prevent future instances of depression.

- Dr. Kevin Allemagne is a therapist who specializes in providing treatment for children, adolescents and adults, individually and in couples and family therapy.