Depression can refer to a normal human emotion that we all feel at times. It can also refer to the name of a medical illness called clinical depression or major depression.

Major depression refers to a group of symptoms of which depressed mood is only one of them. In fact, depressed mood might not be the most prominent symptom. The other symptoms include decreased interest in things, changes in appetite, changes in sleep, less energy, agitation and inability to concentrate.

Although depression may be precipitated by stressful current events, it doesn’t have to be. “I have nothing to be depressed about,” is often heard. Just like any other medical illness, it can happen to any one of us, any time.

It’s very easy to get frustrated with a friend or family member with clinical depression. If you come home with a broken arm in a big white cast, everyone will understand that and see it as a “real” problem.

You can’t see depression, but it is just as real as any other medical problem. You can certainly see the effects of it, not only on the patient, but on his loved ones, as well.

We don’t want to say things like, “snap out of it.” “You have no reason to be depressed.” “Don’t worry, be happy.” These statements are not helpful and will make the person feel worse. On the other hand, an empathic statement like, “You really look depressed, that must be very painful for you,” will show the person that you are seeing him as he is and validating his feelings.

How do we know when the depression is situational and appropriate and when it is more serious? Some questions to consider are, how long has it been going on for? Is the mood proportional to any stressful situation? Is the mood starting to affect other areas of the person’s life?

If you are not sure, it is better to get help sooner rather than later as we don’t want the depression to progress to the point where it can cause medical difficulties like dehydration or malnutrition, interfere with job performance, cause strain in family relations or allow suicidal feelings to develop.

Fortunately, clinical depression often is simple to treat with antidepressant medication. Response does not happen overnight. It usually takes a few weeks to get full effect and the dose has to be adjusted properly. Once you have a good response, it is very important to stay on the full dose for a good six months before considering tapering off the medication. This needs to be done slowly with you and your physician to watch for signs of returning depression.

If symptoms do return, you simply want to stay on the medication for a few more months before attempting another taper. There is a sub-group of people who need to be on medication for a longer time to prevent relapse.

Major depression is very common with up to 20% of the population experiencing it during some point in their life. Studies show that most of these people never go for treatment. That is unfortunate, since as previously mentioned, treatment is often simple and effective.

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