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Depression: Part I - What is "normal" & when you should seek help

We've all had moments, or even days, when we've felt sad... So at what point does sadness turn into clinical depression? I can promise you that this is not a silly question. In fact, many people often wonder whether they have depression or whether the emotion they are experiencing falls within the range of normalcy.

It is important to understand that, in order to qualify for a formal diagnosis of depression, other criteria (in addition to feelings of sadness) must be met. For example, if you are feeling suspicious or paranoid, it is unlikely that you would worry about having schizophrenia. The same idea holds true for depression. Clinical depression is comprised of a number of symptoms that varies from person to person based upon individual differences such as personality, cultural background, and age. I will provide further information about the symptoms of depression and how they might present themselves across the lifespan in next week's blog- so stay tuned! In the meantime, I will be reviewing the other factors that are used to determine whether you meet diagnostic criteria for depression.

How long have you been feeling this way? This question clarifies the duration of your symptoms. Our emotions typically fluctuate in response to what is going on around us. For instance, depending upon the adverse event that has occurred - let's say that your best friend informs you that (s)he is moving across the country - you might feel sad for a couple of minutes, a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks. However, negative emotions that persist beyond this two-week mark indicate the possibility that something more could be amiss. What thoughts and behaviors are accompanying your feelings of sadness? This question helps to clarify the severity of your symptoms. Upon hearing that your best friend is moving away, it is important to know whether your thoughts revolve around your ability to meet new people, whether you begin to have trouble sleeping at night, or whether you start thinking about death and suicide. And, lastly, are your symptoms of depression interfering with your ability to do your job, concentrate in class, or maintain your relationships? This question clarifies the extent to which your mood is affecting your daily functioning.

The extent to which your mood influences your daily functioning is where the fields of psychology and neuropsychology intersect. I don't know about you, but on days when I'm feeling down, I'm not consistently putting forth my 100% into whatever it is that I'm doing. It's not deliberate; I just don't feel as motivated or passionate about accomplishing the tasks that I typically care about. I might also have trouble concentrating because my thoughts keep returning to the bad news that I've received and how I'm going to overcome the problem that was posed to me. And you know what else? If I'm not able to focus on the information that I'm being confronted with right now, how could I be expected to remember it later? Sometimes, people believe that they are experiencing memory loss when what they are actually experiencing is clinical depression. Don't underestimate the effect of your mood on your thinking skills!

Finally, let's return to the question of "normal." According to the World Health Organization, depression is estimated to affect 350 million people globally and it has been identified as the leading cause of disability around the world as well. Other organizations estimate that approximately 1 out of every 6 people has experienced at least one episode of clinical depression. So if you suspect that you have depression, please know that you are not alone. Just like there are different diagnoses for depression (e.g. Major Depressive Disorder, Postpartum Depression, etc.), there are also different types of treatment. The point is, depression is usually treatable and the earlier you begin treatment, the more effective it is.

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