But when the "down" times are long lasting or interfere with your ability to function, you may be suffering from a common, serious illness--depression. Clinical depression affects mood, mind, body, and behavior. Research has shown that in the United States about 19 million people--one in ten adults--experience depression each year, and nearly two-thirds do not get the help they need.2 Treatment can alleviate the symptoms in over 80 percent of the cases. Yet, because it often goes unrecognized, depression continues to cause unnecessary suffering.
Depression is a pervasive and impairing illness that affects both women and men, but women experience depression at roughly twice the rate of men.1 Researchers continue to explore how special issues unique to women--biological, life cycle, and psycho-social-may be associated with women's higher rate of depression.
No two people become depressed in exactly the same way. Many people have only some of the symptoms, varying in severity and duration. For some, symptoms occur in time-limited episodes; for others, symptoms can be present for long periods if no treatment is sought. Having some depressive symptoms does not mean a person is clinically depressed. For example, it is not unusual for those who have lost a loved one to feel sad, helpless, and disinterested in regular activities. Only when these symptoms persist for an unusually long time is there reason to suspect that grief has become depressive illness. Similarly, living with the stress of potential layoffs, heavy workloads, or financial or family problems may cause irritability and "the blues." Up to a point, such feelings are simply a part of human experience. But when these feelings increase in duration and intensity and an individual is unable to function as usual, what seemed a temporary mood may have become a clinical illness.
THE TYPES OF DEPRESSIVE ILLNESS
1. In major depression, sometimes referred to as unipolar or clinical depression, people have some or all of the symptoms listed below for at least 2 weeks but frequently for several months or longer. Episodes of the illness can occur once, twice, or several times in a lifetime.
2. In dysthymia, the same symptoms are present though milder and last at least 2 years. People with dysthymia are frequently lacking in zest and enthusiasm for life, living a joyless and fatigued existence that seems almost a natural outgrowth of their personalities. They also can experience major depressive episodes.
3. Bipolar disorder, or manic-depression , is not nearly as common as other forms of depressive illness and involves disruptive cycles of depressive symptoms that alternate with mania. During manic episodes, people may become overly active, talkative, euphoric, irritable, spend money irresponsibly, and get involved in sexual misadventures. In some people, a milder form of mania, called hypomania, alternates with depressive episodes. Unlike other mood disorders, women and men are equally vulnerable to bipolar disorder; however, women with bipolar disorder tend to have more episodes of depression and fewer episodes of mania or hypomania.
SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION AND MANIA
A thorough diagnostic evaluation is needed if three to five or more of the following symptoms persist for more than 2 weeks (1 week in the case of mania), or if they interfere with work or family life. An evaluation involves a complete physical checkup and information gathering on family health history. Not everyone with depression experiences each of these symptoms. The severity of the symptoms also varies from person to person.
o Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
o Loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex
o Restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying
o Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism
o Sleeping too much or too little, early-morning awakening
o Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
o Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling "slowed down"
o Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
o Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
o Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
o Abnormally elevated mood
o Decreased need for sleep
o Grandiose notions
o Increased talking
o Racing thoughts
o Increased activity, including sexual activity
o Markedly increased energy
o Poor judgment that leads to risk-taking behavior
o Inappropriate social behavior
CAUSES OF DEPRESSION
There is a risk for developing depression when there is a family history of the illness, indicating that a biological vulnerability may be inherited. The risk is somewhat higher for those with bipolar disorder. However, not everybody with a family history develops the illness. In addition, major depression can occur in people who have had no family members with the illness. This suggests that additional factors, possibly biochemistry, environmental stressors, and other psychosocial factors, are involved in the onset of depression.
Evidence indicates that brain biochemistry is a significant factor in depressive disorders. It is known, for example, that individuals with major depressive illness typically have dysregulation of certain brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters. Additionally, sleep patterns, which are biochemically influenced, are typically different in people with depressive disorders. Depression can be induced or alleviated with certain medications, and some hormones have mood-altering properties. What is not yet known is whether the "biochemical disturbances" of depression are of genetic origin, or are secondary to stress, trauma, physical illness, or some other environmental condition.
Environmental and Other Stressors
Significant loss, a difficult relationship, financial problems, or a major change in life pattern have all been cited as contributors to depressive illness. Sometimes the onset of depression is associated with acute or chronic physical illness. In addition, some form of substance abuse disorder occurs in about one-third of people with any type of depressive disorder.
Other Psychological and Social Factors
Persons with certain characteristics--pessimistic thinking, low self-esteem, a sense of having little control over life events, and a tendency to worry excessively--are more likely to develop depression. These attributes may heighten the effect of stressful events or interfere with taking action to cope with them or with getting well. Upbringing or sex role expectations may contribute to the development of these traits. It appears that negative thinking patterns typically develop in childhood or adolescence. Some experts have suggested that the traditional upbringing of girls might foster these traits and may be a factor in women's higher rate of depression.
WOMEN ARE AT GREATER RISK FOR DEPRESSION THAN MEN
Major depression and dysthymia affect twice as many women as men. This two-to-one ratio exists regardless of racial and ethnic background or economic status. The same ratio has been reported in ten other countries all over the world.5 Men and women have about the same rate of bipolar disorder (manic-depression), though its course in women typically has more depressive and fewer manic episodes. Also, a greater number of women have the rapid cycling form of bipolar disorder, which may be more resistant to standard treatments.
A variety of factors unique to women's lives are suspected to play a role in developing depression. Research is focused on understanding these, including: reproductive, hormonal, genetic or other biological factors; abuse and oppression; interpersonal factors; and certain psychological and personality characteristics. And yet, the specific causes of depression in women remain unclear; many women exposed to these factors do not develop depression. What is clear is that regardless of the contributing factors, depression is a highly treatable illness.
THE MANY DIMENSIONS OF DEPRESSION IN WOMEN
Investigators are focusing on the following areas in their study of depression in women:
The Issues of Adolescence
Before adolescence, there is little difference in the rate of depression in boys and girls. But between the ages of 11 and 13 there is a precipitous rise in depression rates for girls. By the age of 15, females are twice as likely to have experienced a major depressive episode as males.6 This comes at a time in adolescence when roles and expectations change dramatically. The stresses of adolescence include forming an identity, emerging sexuality, separating from parents, and making decisions for the first time, along with other physical, intellectual, and hormonal changes. These stresses are generally different for boys and girls, and may be associated more often with depression in females. Studies show that female high school students have significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and adjustment disorders than male students, who have higher rates of disruptive behavior disorders.
Adulthood: Relationships and Work Roles
Stress in general can contribute to depression in persons biologically vulnerable to the illness. Some have theorized that higher incidence of depression in women is not due to greater vulnerability, but to the particular stresses that many women face. These stresses include major responsibilities at home and work, single parenthood, and caring for children and aging parents. How these factors may uniquely affect women is not yet fully understood.