Woman with depression sitting at the edge of her bed with her head in her hands.

Depression: Causes, Symptoms, & Tips for Mental Health Awareness Month

Depression is an extremely common mental health condition. In fact, it’s one of the three most common conditions, along with anxiety and bipolar disorder.

It’s fair to say that most of us have experienced bouts of depression at some point in our lives, and the majority of the time, it’s minor and temporary. However, for some, depression can be an unpleasant way of life that lingers for weeks, months, even years, and it can have a profound effect on their outlook, demeanor, and quality of life.

So, as May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to break down some of the questions people have about depression and offer some tips to help deal with the condition in ourselves and others.

What causes depression?

The answer to this question might seem obvious to those who’ve experienced depression before, but some of these causes – and their prevalence – might not occur to everyone.

Ten of the most common causes of depression (in no particular order) include:

  1. Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
  2. Age. Depression is a major issue for the elderly – especially those who live alone and lack social support.
  3. Personal conflicts or disputes with family members or friends – particularly those relating to identity (i.e., sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, etc.).
  4. The death or a loss of a loved one.
  5. Gender – women are almost twice as likely as men to experience depression, especially for prolonged periods of time.
  6. A family history of depression.
  7. Social isolation.
  8. Serious illnesses, including cancer, HIV, Crohn’s disease, and many more.
  9. Substance abuse.
  10. Medications such as benzodiazepines, isotretinoin (Accutane), corticosteroids, opioids, certain anticholinergics, and beta-blockers all have ties to depression.

What are the signs of depression to watch out for?

While depression may be a rare and short-lived occurrence for some, for many others, it’s a regular part of life’s ups and downs. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who experience constant, pervasive bouts of depression.

For many, the symptoms of depression can be enough to cause noticeable problems in day-to-day activities, affecting their work or school performance and their relationships.

Depression affects everyone differently, but some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness, and/or hopelessness
  • Outbursts of anger, irritability, or frustration
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  • Sleep disturbances, sleeping too little or too much
  • Fatigue/lack of energy
  • Changes in appetite, weight gain/loss
  • Anxiety, agitation, and/or restlessness
  • Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and/or self-blame
  • Impaired cognitive function, which can make it difficult to concentrate, make decisions, and remember things
  • Frequent or recurring thoughts of death or suicide, which may lead to suicide attempts
  • Physical problems, such as back pain or headaches, with no obvious cause

How to treat depression without medication

Depression often makes sufferers feel helpless, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of us have the power to overcome it without the need for medication. Changing our behavior – even small changes – can have profound effects on our overall outlook and mental health.

Here are five ways to increase your productivity, positivity, and mental health:

1. Establish a routine. Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us do better with a routine. Depression often robs us of structure and makes every day feel the same. Get yourself into a routine that includes self-care and other healthy habits from the rest of this list.

2. Set (realistic) goals. Often, when we’re depressed we feel like we can’t get anything accomplished – making us less likely to act and reinforcing these negative thoughts. The best way to combat this is to start setting realistic goals for ourselves each day. As you knock out the easy ones, you build the confidence you need to slowly start taking on more.

3. Exercise and eat healthy foods. Physical activities release feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which can improve mood, and even reduce feelings of pain and sadness.

While a burger or nachos may offer temporary feelings of happiness and satisfaction, they often leave us feeling worse than we started once they’re gone.

4. Challenge your negative thoughts. For most, depression is mainly mental, and changing the way you think starts with challenging the negative thoughts that keep you down, not accepting them. Logic works for some, while repeating a mantra can be helpful for others.

5. Avoid alcohol and illicit drugs. Substance abuse is the most common way people cope with depression. Substance abuse, like eating junk food, might make you feel better for a short period of time. However, it’s a guaranteed way to make depression worse and lead to a host of other negative consequences to your physical and mental health.

How to help someone else with depression

1. Start a conversation

Let the person know you’re there for them and open the conversation by sharing any concerns and asking specific questions you may have. Keep in mind that they may not want to talk about their feelings and don’t force it. Though they may not want to talk it can help them to know you care.

2. Help them find or continue getting support

Not everyone realizes when they’re depressed or how to reach out for support. If they seem interested in counseling, offer to reach out to a professional. If they’re already seeing one, gently encourage them to continue, especially if they express doubts or don’t feel like they’re making progress.

3. Be patient

Depression can get better, but it doesn’t happen overnight. For most people, it’s a process that involves trial and error, counseling, and possibly even medications. They’re going to have good days and bad days, and the best thing you can do is make sure they have your constant support – even if you don’t actively do anything.

4. Don’t forget to practice self-care

When you’re dealing with someone with depression, a common mistake people make is getting so involved in their care and support that they lose sight of their own mental health and well-being, which can lead you into the same situation if you’re not careful.

Take time to regularly reflect on how you’re feeling and take care of your own needs.

What to avoid when dealing with someone who’s depressed

1. DON’T take things personally

Remember that their depression isn’t your fault. If they lash out, cancel plans, or don’t ever want to do stuff, don’t take it as a personal slight.

2. DON’T try to fix them

Depression is a serious mental health condition that requires professional treatment. It’s not something that they can turn around thanks to kind words or advice, even when you have good intentions.

It IS okay to encourage positivity – especially when they’re in a particularly negative mood, but don’t force it if they don’t respond. Just letting them know you’re in their corner and ready to jump in and help if they ask is often the best kind of support.

3. DON’T give unsolicited advice

It’s natural to want to help by offering advice. But even if it’s good advice, someone dealing with depression may not want to hear it, and you’re running the risk of alienating them – which will make them less likely to come to you for advice when they DO want it.

4. DON’T try to minimize or compare their experience

If your friend speaks to you about their depression, you’re probably going to get the urge to reassure them with statements like, “I understand,” or “We’ve all been there.” But even when statements like this stem from good intentions, they can come across as attempts to minimize or dismiss these feelings.

Likewise, comparing what they’re going through with others’ troubles can upset people. Their pain is what they’re focused on, so making statements that validate these feelings is what often helps the most.

Depression and substance abuse/addiction

Depression is tough. And while it may seem like taking the edge off with drugs or alcohol might make you feel better, it’s going to have the opposite effect in the long term.

Alcohol and drugs are short-term fixes that lead to serious, dangerous long-term consequences like dependence, poor health, interpersonal problems, legal troubles, and more. These consequences then worsen the underlying depression, and what you end up with is a self-sustaining cycle of depression and addiction.

Let Enterhealth Help

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or anything else, Enterhealth can help.

Our team of MDs, psychiatrists, psychologists, and master’s level therapists works in tandem to diagnose and treat mental health disorders – especially those that co-occur with addiction and substance abuse, known as dual diagnosis treatment.

Call 1.800.388.4601 or visit our contact page to reach out today.