Everyone feels down at times. The breakup of a relationship or a bad grade can lead to low mood. Sometimes sadness comes on for no apparent reason. Is there any difference between these shifting moods and what is called depression? Anyone who has experienced an episode of depression would probably answer yes. Depression, versus ordinary unhappiness, is characterized by longer and deeper feelings of despondency and the presence of certain characteristic symptoms (see below). This distinction is important because in severe cases, depression can be life-threatening, with suicide as a possible outcome.
Signs of Depression
Anyone who feels down most of the day nearly every day for weeks or months may be clinically depressed. Depressed individuals may experience:
- Loss of pleasure in virtually all activities
- Feelings of fatigue or lack of energy
- Frequent tearfulness
- Difficulty with concentration or memory
- A change in sleep pattern, with either too much or too little sleep; the person may wake up in the night or early morning and not feel rested the next day
- An increase or decrease in appetite, with a corresponding change in weight
- Markedly diminished interest in sex
- Feelings of worthlessness and self-blame or exaggerated feelings of guilt
- Unrealistic ideas and worries (e.g., believing no one like them or that they have a terminal illness when there is no supporting proof)
- Hopelessness about the future
- Thoughts of suicide
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people. A major cause of suicide is mental illness, very commonly depression. People feeling suicidal are overwhelmed by painful emotions and see death as the only way out, losing sight of the fact that suicide is a permanent “solution” to a temporary state—most people who try to kill themselves but live later say they are glad they didn’t die. Most people who die by suicide could have been helped. An individual considering suicide frequently confides in a friend, who may be able to convince them to seek treatment. When the risk is high, concerned friends and relatives should seek professional guidance.
Suicidal thoughts may be fleeting or more frequent, passive (e.g., “What if I were dead?”) or active (e.g., thinking of ways to kill oneself, making a plan). Preparations for death, such as giving away possessions or acquiring a gun, are cause for great concern. A sudden lift in spirits in a depresed person can be a warning sign that they are planning to kill themselves. Any level of suicidal thinking should be taken seriously.
How Can I Help a Depressed Person?
It helps to listen in a way that shows you care and empathize. This does not mean entering into the person’s despair; an attitude of careful optimism is appropriate. However, avoid minimizing the person’s pain or making comments like “Everything’s fine” or “Your life is good—you have no reason to feel suicidal!” Try saying something like “I can see how hopeless you feel, but I believe things can get better” or “I hear you; I want to help.” Advice should be simple and practical; for example, “Let’s go for a walk and talk more” or “I am here for you, but you need more professional advice; let’s look up some numbers together.”
Change can be slow. Trying to help someone who is depressed and is not responding to your attempts can be frustrating and anxiety provoking. It’s important to take care of yourself and get support, too. If you don’t take care of yourself, you may burn out, feel angry, or give up on the person. It is a good idea to seek help and support well before you reach this point.
If a person is expressing that they have suicidal thoughts or you see signs of possible suicidality, it’s important to take it seriously. Sometimes, a suicidal person may ask you to keep their situation a secret. It can be tempting to promise to keep this secret and/or to take on the burden of supporting them all on your own; however, these are not good ideas. Consider the possible consequences of failing to get the person professional help. It is a sign of caring to get help for someone who is at risk of killing themselves, even if it makes them angry at you.
Info Courtesy: COUNSELING & PSYCHOLOGICAL SERVICES, CAPS