Nearly everyone feels down now and then, especially at this time of year when the gloomy weather makes it feel like spring will never arrive. It's not unusual to experience the "winter blahs," only to soon bounce back and feel your normal self again. But what is the difference between feeling down and clinical depression?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States, with an estimated 9.5 percent of the adult population suffering from the disorder. Despite the serious nature of the disorder, it is estimated that half of all people with depression remain undiagnosed.
Characterized by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness and poor concentration, depression takes a heavy toll not only on the individual suffering from it, but his or her family and friends as well.
If the description of depression sounds all too familiar, it's time to ask for help. You don't need to see a specialist to be diagnosed and treated for depression; your regular primary care provider can either diagnose and treat the condition, or refer you to someone who can. He or she will start by asking you to describe your symptoms - including your thoughts and feelings, your eating and sleeping patterns, and any concerns you have. You'll have a physical exam to rule out any underlying health problem, and lab tests may be ordered to check for anemia or thyroid function. Finally, you may be asked to complete a questionnaire that detects the presence of depression. The most commonly-used questionnaire is the Patient Health Questionnaire-9, a nine-item survey tool that typically takes fewer than five minutes to complete. Your provider may simply ask you the first two questions of the survey, which has been shown to be a very reliable indicator of depression:
1. Over the past two weeks, how often have you experienced little interest or pleasure in doing things?
2. Over the past two weeks, how often have you felt down, depressed or hopeless?
If your response to these questions is "More than half the days" or "Nearly every day," it is likely that you are suffering from depression.
Fortunately, depression is a very treatable illness. Your provider may recommend counseling, antidepressant medication or a combination of these. He or she will also help you make behavioral changes to improve your physical and mental well-being, such as eating healthy, being physically active and getting the right amount of sleep. It's important to avoid alcohol and any drug not prescribed by your provider. While these substances may seem to make your symptoms feel more tolerable, drugs and alcohol make depression much harder to treat.
If you think you might be suffering from depression, don't give up. Call your provider or the Mental Health Services Administration helpline at (800) 662-HELP (4357).
Flynn, PhD, NP-C, is a nursing professor at Lewis-Clark State College and a family nurse practitioner at LCSC Student Health Services and the Snake River Community Clinic. She can be reached at (208) 413-8205.