Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses. At least 8 percent of adults in the United States experience serious depression at some point during their lives, and estimates range as high as 17 percent. The illness affects all people, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic standing. However, women are two to three times more likely than men to suffer from depression. Experts disagree on the reason for this difference. Some cite differences in hormones, and others point to the stress caused by society's expectations of women.
Although it may appear anytime from childhood to old age, depression usually begins during a person's 20s or 30s. The illness may come on slowly, then deepen gradually over months or years. On the other hand, it may erupt suddenly in a few weeks or days. A person who develops severe depression may appear so confused, frightened, and unbalanced that observers speak of a "nervous breakdown." However it begins, depression causes serious changes in a person's feelings and outlook. A person with major depression feels sad nearly every day and may cry often. People, work, and activities that used to bring them pleasure, no longer do.
Depression usually alters a person's appetite, sometimes increasing it, but usually reducing it.
Sleep habits often change as well. People with depression may oversleep or, more commonly, sleep for fewer hours. A depressed person might go to sleep at midnight, sleep restlessly, then wake up at 5 AM feeling tired and blue. For many depressed people, early morning is the saddest time of the day.
Depression also changes one's energy level. Some depressed people may be restless and agitated, engaging in fidgety movements and pacing. Others may feel sluggish and inactive, experiencing great fatigue, lack of energy, and a feeling of being worn out or carrying a heavy burden. Depressed people may also have difficulty thinking, poor concentration, and problems with memory.
People with depression often experience feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, guilt, and self-blame. They may interpret a minor failing on their part as a sign of incompetence or interpret minor criticism as condemnation. Some depressed people complain of being spiritually or morally dead. The mirror seems to reflect someone ugly and repulsive. Even a competent and decent person may feel deficient, cruel, stupid, phony, or guilty of having deceived others. People with major depression may experience such extreme emotional pain that they consider or attempt suicide. At least 15 percent of seriously depressed people commit suicide, and many more attempt it.
In some cases, people with depression may experience psychotic symptoms, such as delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (false sensory perceptions). Psychotic symptoms indicate an especially severe illness. Compared to other depressed people, those with psychotic symptoms have longer hospital stays, and after leaving, they are more likely to be moody and unhappy. They are also more likely to commit suicide. SeePsychosis. (Coming)
Some depressions seem to come out of the blue, even when things are going well. Others seem to have an obvious cause: a marital conflict, financial difficulty, or some personal failure. Yet many people with these problems do not become deeply depressed. Most psychologists believe depression results from an interaction between stressful life events and a person's biological and psychological vulnerabilities.
Depression runs in families. By studying twins, researchers have found evidence of a strong genetic influence in depression. Genetically identical twins raised in the same environment are three times more likely to have depression in common than fraternal twins, who have only about half of their genes in common. In addition, identical twins are five times more likely to have bipolar disorder in common. These findings suggest that vulnerability to depression and bipolar disorder can be inherited. Adoption studies have provided more evidence of a genetic role in depression. These studies show that children of depressed people are vulnerable to depression even when raised by adoptive parents.
Psychological theories of depression focus on the way people think and behave. In a 1917 essay, Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud explained melancholia, or major depression, as a response to loss-either real loss, such as the death of a spouse, or symbolic loss, such as the failure to achieve an important goal. Freud believed that a person's unconscious anger over loss weakens the ego, resulting in self-hate and self-destructive behavior.
Psychologists agree that stressful experiences can trigger depression in people who are predisposed to the illness. For example, the death of a loved one may trigger depression. Psychologists usually distinguish true depression from grief, a normal process of mourning a loved one who has died. Other stressful experiences may include divorce, pregnancy, the loss of a job, and even childbirth. About 20 percent of women experience an episode of depression, known as postpartum depression, after having a baby. In addition, people with serious physical illnesses or disabilities often develop depression.
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