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Major Depressive Disorder Explained

The effects of major depressive disorder can descend upon a person even when it would appear that everything is going well in his or her life.
The effects of major depressive disorder can descend upon a person even when it would appear that everything is going well in his or her life.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Sadness is an emotion that everyone has felt at some point in their lives. It's a natural response to events that can range from teenage heartbreak to the death of a loved one or the loss of a pet. A child may feel it if his balloon pops or her ice cream cone slips out of her hand and plops on the sidewalk. An entire community may feel it after a natural disaster. Sadness isn't pleasant, but it's directly attributable to a particular event; it can come in varying degrees, and it can actually serve a beneficial purpose not unlike cleansing a physical wound helps lead to healing.

Major depressive disorder (MDD) shares some traits with sadness but also has some distinct differences. Failing to recognize those differences can lead to false self-diagnosis. It can also result in the stigmatization of a person by society. It's all too easy to say, "I've been sad before, but I got over it and got on with my life ... that's what Jane should do, too, but she likes to wallow in it." In many cases, the stigma is that a person dealing with depression is weak or lacks strong character [source: Payne]. Neither assumption is correct.

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The causes of, and treatment options for, MDD tend to vary. Much research has been done in the field of depression and enormous progress has been made. But while an ear, nose and throat doctor can run a test to determine if you have strep throat or an orthopedist can diagnose a broken leg, your doctor can't test your blood for major depressive disorder. The diagnosis, causes and treatments for major depressive disorder are often more nebulous and difficult to understand.

It's valuable, however, to learn as much about depression as possible. Without a proper understanding of the condition, stigmas persist and opportunities to improve qualities of life are squandered. One of the myths associated with MDD is that people who have it won't ever be able to get rid of it [source: Payne]. It's true that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment, but that doesn't mean it can't be treated.

There are definable criteria for major depressive order, as well as researched and substantiated causes of the condition. In addition, effective, tested solutions are available in a variety of forms. In short, if you or someone you know is battling something more severe than what seems to be typical sadness, there are ways to recognize it, figure out where it came from and find hope for an improved quality of life.

The assumption is sometimes made -- and wrongly so -- that sadness and depression are the same thing. Others falsely conclude that depression is merely a more severe case of sadness. While there are similarities, there are also multiple differences between the two [sources: Koenig; NAMI]. Sadness is common to the entire population. Major depressive disorder affects a small, though significant, portion of society. Some researchers estimate that 5 to 8 percent of people deal with the condition, while others put the numbers as high as 12 percent for men and 20 percent for women [sources: Belmaker and Agam; NAMI].

Sadness comes as the direct result of a particular event. The effects of major depressive disorder can descend upon a person even when it would appear that everything is going well in his or her life [source: Payne]. A person dealing with the disorder will also experience physical changes -- and changes in mood. The physical changes may involve a lack of interest in activities which he or she would normally enjoy. Weight gain or weight loss and sleeplessness or excessive sleep is also common. He or she may become easily agitated or brought to tears by the smallest of events. Thoughts of suicide may be prevalent, and it's not uncommon for major depressive disorder to lead to sluggishness and slow movements [source: Belmaker and Agam]. The duration of the symptoms is one of the biggest indicators of major depressive disorder. They don't go away after a few hours or a few days -- the symptoms last more than two weeks at a time [source: Belmaker and Agam].

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Major depressive disorder also goes by the names clinical depression or unipolar depression. Unlike bipolar depression, those who battle major depressive disorder don't tend to experience the high highs as well as the low lows. There isn't a manic component to their mood [source: NAMI].

Major depressive disorder can be caused by a variety of factors, both physical and/or social. A particular event such as a death, divorce or layoff can activate the symptoms which can then be extremely difficult to reverse without help. A person's sex can even play a role. Women are more likely to be affected by depression than men. Abuse -- whether physical, emotional or both -- can immediately lead to major depressive disorder or it may manifest itself in later life [source: WebMD].

Research also indicates that major depressive disorder can have a hereditary component. It tends to appear in each generation in some families. The fact that there may be no family history of depression doesn't, however, guarantee a person will live unaffected by the condition [source: WebMD].

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While a blood test won't indicate whether or not clinical depression exists, a test can reveal other medical conditions that can cause the same symptoms associated with it. A malfunctioning thyroid, for example, can result in sluggishness. A stroke can produce changes that manifest themselves in the form of MDD. Alcoholism or other drug abuse can lead to feelings of despair and hopelessness. Even some medications can have side effects that cause depression [source: WebMD].

A variety of treatments for major depressive disorder can help relieve or eliminate the problems associated with the condition. Among treatments available:

  • Talk Therapy -- Also referred to as psychotherapy. A trained professional helps the patient work through his or her emotions, notice patterns and plan alternative courses of action.
  • Medication -- Drugs such as Paxil, Zoloft or Prozac can alter brain chemistry, bringing clarity and a healthy disposition.
  • Combination -- Medication may be used to alleviate the severity of symptoms while the patient engages in talk therapy to develop a long-term approach to the condition.
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy -- A less-used treatment, ECT (also known as shock therapy) is typically used when other remedies fail.
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation -- Surgery which involves the implantation of a battery to excite the vagus nerve [sources: Fava; WebMD].

If a person dealing with major depressive order doesn't seek help, the condition tends to get worse as time goes on. In some cases the failure to address the problem results in suicide [source: NAMI]. Major depressive disorder is not a character flaw, a weakness or a problem to be ignored or denied. It is a treatable condition which affects approximately 15 million people in the United States alone [source: NAMI]. For more information on major depressive disorder, please visit the links and resources on the next page.

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Sources

  • Belmaker, R.H., M.D., and Galila Agam, PhD. "Major Depressive Disorder." The New England Journal of Medicine. Jan. 3, 2008. (Jan. 16, 2012) http://cmsprod.bgu.ac.il/NR/rdonlyres/D127506C-449D-4A3A-A77A-D0455CE79108/44101/depressivedisorderNEJM08.pdf
  • Fava, Marizio and Kenneth S Kendler. "Major Depressive Disorder." Neuron. November 2000. (Jan. 16, 2012) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627300001124
  • Koenig, Harod, M.D. "What is The Difference Between Sadness and Depression?" ABC News. May 1, 2008. (Jan. 16, 2012) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/DepressionOverview/story?id=4359974
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness. "What is Depression?" (Jan. 16, 2012) http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=depression
  • Payne, Sarah. "The Effects of Stigma Applied to Depression." Drury University. Dec. 8, 2011. (Jan. 16, 2012) http://www.drury.edu/multinl/story.cfm?ID=7576&NLID=166
  • WebMD. "Major Depression (Clinical Depression.)" (Jan. 16, 2012) http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/major-depression

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