You’ll never guess number…just kidding!
It’s such a commonly used word, isn’t it? When last did you use it yourself? This week? A month ago? Did you using it of yourself or someone you know?
But then do you really know what depression is? What it means for someone to have it?
Here’s your chance to find out: I’ve collated 20 facts about depression that, in my experience, tend to come as a surprise to many people. Let’s see what you know, shall we?
- Depression is one of the commonest mental illnesses (anxiety disorders are take the cake as the very commonest group of mental illnesses).
- Depression is not caused by sadness, any more than malaria is caused by fever. This is because it’s not simply an emotion, it’s a condition — a medical condition. (Oh, and depression is not caused by worrying, or as we Nigerians like to describe it, “thinking too much.”)
- I have good and bad news for you about depression. The good news: it’s totally treatable, and the medication really works. Up to 80% of depressive illnesses respond well to medication and other forms of treatment.
- The bad news: over half of people with depression don’t get treatment. Many times, they and their loved ones don’t even know what the symptoms mean. Other times, they know but are reluctant to seek help because of the stigma of having a mental illness or being seen as weak.
- 350 million. That’s how many people worldwide are estimated to have depression around the world, from WHO estimates.
- Depression is the second leading cause of disability worldwide. (Disability means limitations to a person’s ability.)
- There are episodes of depression, and then there is the disorder itself. The episodes are when a person gets depressed, but they may not necessarily have the disorder. The disorder, meanwhile, is always a reality, even when the person isn’t in the middle of an episode. Kinda like how someone who has asthma still has it when they aren’t in the middle of an attack. Also not everyone who gasps has asthma, right? (Note: the job of deciding which it is is best done by a medical professional.)
- Many people don’t know this, but children too get depressed. About 8 in every 100 children and adolescents. (If you’re wondering what they’re thinking about, remember what I said earlier? Depression is not from “thinking too much.”)
- Women have twice the rate of depression that men do. (The reasons are unclear, but it’s thought to be a complex combination of biological and social factors.)
- Asking someone with a depressive disorder to cheer up is about as helpful as asking someone with fever to cool down. Or like asking someone with asthma to breathe since they’re surrounded by air. Also, it feels about as frustrating. A common trigger of depression is pregnancy: 1 in 10 new mothers experience it (about 3–7 have a milder form of mood disorder called “baby blues”)
- Left untreated, a depressive episode lasts about six months, although it can sometimes extend for up to two or more years. Given the nature of depressive symptoms, sometimes that means the person’s life is one hold for that long. Treatment, by reducing this significantly, allows affected people to get back to living their lives.
- Sadness is an emotional response to something unpleasant. Depression is a medical condition that can be triggered by almost anything or by nothing in particular. It’s actually possible to diagnose depression in someone who isn’t even sad. No, really.
- Forgetfulness is a common complaint among people who have depression. It’s seen in over 90% of depressive episodes. Thing is, it’s not so much due to any problems with memory, but from difficulty concentrating.
- Did you know that one the commonest complaints of people with depression in Nigeria (and many other black African countries), who show up at the hospital? Poor sleep. And even when they do get to sleep, they wake up feeling unrefreshed. (Another common complaint is a persistent lack of energy.)
- Nigerians with depressive illnesses also complain of some unusual (and otherwise unexplainable) symptoms: crawling sensations around their bodies, “internal heat” and heaviness in their heads. (Read more about how depression is unique in Africans.)
- Drinking problems are a common complaint in people (especially men) who actually have depression, as alcohol is often used to feel better. But guess what? Alcohol might make them feel better in the moment, but it actually worsens depression, and increases the risk of suicide.
- Another important symptom in depression is feelings of guilt. The reason is partly because depression is related to taking more responsibility for things than is healthy. And when things go wrong (as things often will), depression can follow. (You know that story we all heard back when we were kids? It’s commoner in the more severe forms of depressive disorder, and I’ve often seen people with depressive disorders begging for forgiveness even when they can’t say exactly what they believe they have done wrong. They just have this crushing sense of guilt. About the old woman who confessed to killing the village chief, the chances are she was just someone with a depressive disorder, and who had ideas of guilt about the death of the chief that made her convinced it must have been her fault.)
- By the way, if you hear anyone argue that depression is only an emotional thing, tell them that people prone to depression are known to have recognized brain changes. That wouldn’t be expected in a merely emotional disorder.
- If you want to help someone in the middle of a depressive episode, saying things like “it?ll get better”, “you just need to get out of the house”, or “you?ll be fine” is of no use. It only makes them feel worse. Instead, say, “I’m here for you” “What can I do to help?” Or just hold their hand and be quiet.
- A few famous people who had depressive disorders: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Robin Williams. In Nigeria, very few celebrities have admitted to being depressed (understandably, given our general stigmatizing reactions) but we do have Chimamanda Adichie having “shared” her experience with it. (I put “shared” in quotes because she later demanded they withdraw it: they had published it without her permission.)
- Bonus: If you read all 20: you really are interested in learning more about depression. That makes you, as far as I’m concerned, someone pretty cool!
If you think you (or someone you care about) might have depression you can take (or offer them) this free online test. If you get high enough scores, you should definitely consider seeing a psychiatrist (a medical doctor who specialises in mind health) or other mental health professional. (You can book a session with me here.)
I first wrote and had this published at withdrmalik.org.