Depression is often referred to as the ‘common cold’ of mental illness. At least 10% of American adults experience an episode of severe depression within their lifetime. And yet there is still a stigma surrounding depression.
Unfortunately, there is still a line of thinking out there that says individuals with depression bring it upon themselves; they might be viewed as lazy, selfish or attention-seeking. Because of this stigma, those suffering from the mental illness might be more inclined to hide it.They might even believe the stigma themselves and feel guilty for being unable to handle depression on their own. The idea that depression is within control like this simply isn’t true.If we were all further educated about mental illness, I think the stigma would be a lot less common.
There are so many causes and contributing factors related to depression. It is much too simplistic to suggest that depression is caused purely by lifestyle. That’s not to say lifestyle doesn’t count at all. Positive lifestyle choices can definitely be beneficial in fighting mental illness. For example, research suggests that the Mediterranean lifestyle (lots of fruits and veggies, exercise and socializing) is associated with lower rates of depression. This really isn’t a surprise- most people on the internet have likely already heard an overwhelming amount of information about the benefits of exercise, healthy eating and good relationships to both our physical and mental health. But while we do have some control over these things, there are other factors leading to depression that we have less control over. And as well as contribute to depression, some of these factors can prevent us from living a healthy lifestyle.
There are of course factors that have been related to depression. And while a lot of research has already been done, the research is definitely not finished. But for now, here are 4 reasons not to blame anyone for their own depression.
1.The Learned Helplessness Theory- The learned helplessness theory basically says that those who are depressed have learned to ‘give up’. They were in a situation where they had no control, and despite being in a new situation, they still believe they have no control.
A man named Seligman came up with this theory after doing some testing with dogs. He strapped these dogs into something he called a hammock, where they received repeated electrical shocks. The dogs had no control over whether or not they were shocked. They had no control over their situation. The next day, these dogs were put into a shuttle box (a box divided by a barrier into two parts: in one side they received shocks and in one side they didn’t.) Normal dogs usually respond to the shuttle box by learning to jump over the barrier to the side of the box that doesn’t shock them. The dogs who received shocks the previous day didn’t do this. They soon gave up, “lay down and quietly whined”. This theory suggests that people who are put in situations where they have no control may also learn to ‘give up’.
You could argue that people who fall into this are ‘weak’. Many people go through hardships and yet some still thrive as they come out of them, while others are left depressed. Becoming depressed is not a sign of weakness though. In many cases, I think it’s a fairly natural response of a tired mind and body. As this article suggests, there are a lot of factors contributing to depression. Perhaps the person who is pushed down by the hardship has been dealing with other hardships previously. Perhaps they have a genetic predisposition to respond with depression. Maybe they have inadequate social support, or inadequate time to exercise and prepare healthy meals.
2. The Genetic Component- Research has found that some people are predisposed to develop depression. A study looking at identical twins found that if one twin was depressed, there was a 46 % chance that the other twin would also be depressed. This 46% chance can be compared to a 20% in fraternal twins, suggesting that the depression is caused by something more than environment alone. (McGuffin et al., 1996)
3.Hormones– Many individuals with a history of depression have likely already heard that hormones are related to depression. Research has shown that low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine are indeed linked to depression as well as abnormal levels of cortisol and melatonin.
This is where lifestyle fits in to some degree. For example, exercise, stress reduction, getting enough sleep and a good diet are all natural ways to help balance our hormonal systems. However, trying to do these things on our own isn’t always practical, and it doesn’t always work. While we can make small chances that provide real benefits, hormonal regulation in our bodies is complex, and it is only one of many factors tied to depression.Regulating hormones might definitely help some people, but for people who find it difficult to even get out of bed, trying to do this may feel next to impossible. Medication for depressions may be a more practical treatment in some cases.
4.The Family-Social Model– The family-social model suggests that our social environments play a large role in the development of depression. Factors such as a lack of fulfilling relationships, being stuck in abusive relationships, and conditions of poverty leave people more susceptible to developing depression. And keep in mind also that our social situations influence our access to good education, adequate nutrition, social support and professional help.
So then the question remains, if there are so many outside factors, how do we treat depression?
Of course, it can never hurt to add exercise, healthy eating, and enough sleep to our lives. But that is a pretty surface-level solution.
One thing I would recommend to anyone suffering from depression is to talk to a professional. Make an appointment with your doctor or find a registered therapist. Sometimes it takes awhile to find a therapist who is a good fit, but it will be well worth it when you do find the right therapist.
I understand that there is still some stigma attached to therapy. I recognize that some individuals view therapy as rock bottom, or as something you go to out of weakness. I completely disagree with this- in fact I think that everyone could benefit from therapy, and should try it at least once in their life. I’ve been to therapy myself, and I’ve encouraged a number of my friends to try it. Just like depression isn’t a sign of weakness, neither is therapy. Depression is difficult to deal with it, and while it sometimes does pass on it’s own, we don’t have to wait and hope that will happen. If you feel overwhelmed, then don’t try to carry that burden on your own.
Depression is also common. In fact, the first time I went to the doctor about it, the doctor told me that something like a third of the patients that come to his office are there for depression. I don’t know how this translates to other clinics, but I do know that the vast majority of Western doctors will not be shocked by depressive symptoms.
And the statics about are good, by the way. A popular kind of therapy called Cognitive-Behavioral therapy has been shown to get rid of nearly all symptoms in 50-60% of patients. And if Cognitive Behavior Therapy doesn’t work, for some people the medication is really beneficial.
But whatever you do, just know that you don’t have to take it alone.