Depression and anxiety are now wide-spread problems stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. But caregivers of people with mental illness have often suffered from these issues.
On February 21, 2021, the New York Times published an American Psychological Association poll that said 74 percent of psychologists are seeing more patients with anxiety disorders than before pandemic. Sixty percent were seeing more people with depression. Time Magazine also published this on the increase in depression.
First the good news.
Almost all depression and anxiety conditions are treatable. But there is no magic fix. These are very complex conditions. Depression and increased anxiety also can be signs that a person with a more severe diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, is heading into an episode. Let’s take a look at depression first.
Depression … what it is and who gets it
Depression can result from a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors, the Veterans Administration website reports. Trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation may trigger depression, but depression can also occur without an obvious trigger.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 16 million American adults—almost 7% of the population—had at least one major depressive episode in a non-pandemic year. Women are 70% more likely than men to experience depression. And young adults aged 18–25 are 60% more likely to have depression than people aged 50 or older.
Depression is frequently under-diagnosed, however. Psychologists estimate that only about one-third (35%) of people with depression ever see a mental health professional.
The Veterans Administration reports that military personnel are prone to depression, at least partially as a result of exposure to traumatic experiences, including witnessing combat and separation from family during deployment or military trainings. Data shows it is five time higher among active duty soldiers and even higher among the previously deployed solders.
Some will only experience one depressive episode in a lifetime, but for most, depressive disorder recurs.
Without treatment, episodes may last a few months to several years.
Symptoms of Depression
Depression can present different symptoms, depending on the person. But for most people, depressive disorder changes how they function day-to-day, and typically for more than two weeks. Common symptoms include:
- Changes in sleep
- Changes in appetite
- Lack of concentration
- Loss of energy
- Lack of interest in activities
- Hopelessness or guilty thoughts
- Changes in movement (less activity or agitation)
- Physical aches and pains
- Suicidal thoughts
We are not capable of diagnosing depression, but we can use the SIGECAPS diagnostic tool to determine whether someone should see a doctor. If a person has five or more of these 8 symptoms every day for two weeks, they are likely struggling with a major depression.
SIGECAPS Diagnostic Tool
- SADNESS / SLEEP INTERRUPTION
- INTERESTS … lost interest in things that used to enjoy
- GUILT … ruminating over past perceived failures, character flaws, mistakes
- ENERGY … noticeable lack of it
- CONCENTRATION … inability to
- APPETITE … could be eating more or eating less
- PSYCHOMOTOR ABNORMALITIES … retardation (slowed speech, slowed movement, shuffling gait, collapsed posture, low voice volume, monotone speech, lack of facial expressions) or agitation (pacing, wringing hands, removing and putting on clothing over and over,
- SUICIDAL … actively (with a plan), passively (stopped caring whether they live or die) and para (cutting or overdoses that the person knows won’t kill them … a cry for help)
Causes of Depression
Depression does not have a single cause. It can be triggered by a life crisis, physical illness or something else. But it can also occur spontaneously. Scientists believe several factors can contribute to depression:
- Trauma. When people experience trauma at an early age, it can cause long-term changes in how their brains respond to fear and stress. These changes may lead to depression.
- Genetics. Mood disorders, such as depression, tend to run in families.
- Life circumstances. Marital status, relationship changes, financial standing and where a person lives influence whether a person develops depression.
- Brain changes. Imaging studies have shown that the frontal lobe of the brain becomes less active when a person is depressed. Depression is also associated with changes in how the pituitary gland and hypothalamus respond to hormone stimulation.
- Other medical conditions. People who have a history of sleep disturbances, medical illness, chronic pain, anxiety and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to develop depression. Some medical syndromes (like hypothyroidism) can mimic depressive disorder. Some medications can also cause symptoms of depression.
- Drug and alcohol abuse. About one-third of people with substance abuse problems also have depression. This requires coordinated treatment for both conditions, as alcohol can worsen symptoms.
Treatments for Depression
After an assessment rules out medical and other possible causes, a patient-centered treatment plans can include any or a combination of the following:
- Psychotherapy including cognitive behavioral therapy, family-focused therapy and interpersonal therapy.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has a strong research base to show it helps with symptoms of depression. This therapy helps assess and change negative thinking patterns associated with depression. The goal of this structured therapy is to recognize negative thoughts and to teach coping strategies. CBT is often time-limited and may be limited to 8–16 sessions in some instances.
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT) focuses on improving problems in personal relationships and other changes in life that may be contributing to depressive disorder. Therapists teach individuals to evaluate their interactions and to improve how they relate to others. IPT is often time-limited like CBT.
- Psychodynamic therapy is a therapeutic approach rooted in recognizing and understanding negative patterns of behavior and feelings that are rooted in past experiences and working to resolve them. Looking at a person’s unconscious processes is another component of this psychotherapy. It can be done in short-term or longer-term modes.
- Medications including antidepressants, mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medications.
- Exercise can help with prevention and mild-to-moderate symptoms.
- Psychoeducation and support groups
- Brain stimulation therapies can be tried if psychotherapy and/or medication are not effective. These include electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depressive disorder with psychosis or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) for severe depression.
- Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) involves transmitting short electrical impulses into the brain. ECT does cause some side effects, including memory loss. Individuals should understand the risks and benefits of this intervention before beginning a treatment trial.
- Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) is a relatively new type of brain stimulation that uses a magnet instead of an electrical current to activate the brain. It is not effective as a maintenance treatment.
- Light therapy, which uses a light box to expose a person to full spectrum light in an effort to regulate the hormone melatonin.
- Alternative approaches including acupuncture, meditation and nutrition can be part of a comprehensive treatment plan, but do not yet have strong scientific backing.
Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern
Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD) is characterized by recurrent episodes of depression in late fall and winter, alternating with periods of normal mood the rest of the year.
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health were the first to suggest this condition was a response to decreased light and experimented with the use of bright light to address the symptoms. Scientists have identified that the neurotransmitter serotonin may not be working optimally in many people who experience this disorder.
The prevalence of this condition appears to vary with latitude, age and sex:
- Prevalence increases among people living in higher/northern latitudes.
- Younger persons are at higher risk.
- Women are more likely than men to experience this condition.
This disorder’s most common presentation is of an atypical depression. With classic depression, people tend to lose weight and sleep less. This condition is the kind of atypical depression often seen in bipolar disorder—people tend to gain weight and sleep more.
Although not everyone experiences all the following symptoms, the classic characteristics of Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern include:
- Hypersomnia (or oversleeping)
- Daytime fatigue
- Weight gain
- Craving carbohydrates
Many people may experience other symptoms as well, including:
- Decreased sexual interest
- Suicidal thoughts
- Lack of interest in usual activities and decreased socialization
The key to an accurate diagnose of this condition is recognizing its pattern. Symptoms usually begin in October/November and subside in March/April. Some people begin to experience a “slump” as early as August, while others remain well until January. Regardless of the time of onset, most people don’t feel fully “back to normal” until early May.
For a diagnosis to be made, this pattern of onset and remission must have occurred during at least a two-year period, without the occurrence of any non-seasonal episodes during that same period.
This means you will not receive this diagnosis the first time you experience symptoms. If you believe you may have a seasonal depressive pattern, it’s important to pay attention to the pattern. Track your symptoms, noting when they begin and when they subside. This self-awareness can help. Mental health professionals will ask you about your observations and also your family history since mood disorders tend to run in families.
As with most depressive disorders, the best treatment includes a combination of antidepressant medications, cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise. Unlike other depressive disorders, this condition can also be treated with light therapy. Light therapy consists of regular, daily exposure to a “light box,” which artificially simulates high-intensity sunlight.
If you know you have a seasonal pattern, ask yourself “How can I plan for this?” Because this disorder has a specific pattern, those who experience it can prepare for its arrival in the following ways, for example:
- Exercise more toward the end of summer
- Get into therapy around September
- Start your lightbox in October
- Plan a vacation to a sunny spot in January