Part Two: Who Gets Depressed, and Why?

If you’ve read Depression - Myths and Facts, you now understand that Depression is a medical condition worthy of your full respect, and not something to be judged or taken lightly.  Here is some additional information to help you get a more accurate picture of how often Depression occurs, why we don’t recognize it more readily, and lifestyle factors that affect your level of risk.

Prevalence of Depression

Studies show that 10-13% of all Americans will experience Depression at some point in their lives, and that at any given time, about 5% will have experienced it in the previous year.  In case you notice that these numbers don’t seem to match up, it is because many people suffer Depression repeatedly throughout their lives, while others may have only one episode and be free of it thereafter.  Depression appears to be about twice as prevalent among females as males, and middle-age is emerging as the highest risk age group.  People with Depression often wait several years before seeking treatment.

How Depression Hides

So, if a substantial minority of our population deals with Depression, why aren’t we more aware of it?  Why do people who are depressed so frequently feel like they are alone in their struggle, to the point where they don’t even try getting help?

Many depressed people are masters of putting on a strong front, trying to fake it ‘til they make it, ignore it until it goes away, or will their way out of it.  Some of the most impressive people you know may actually suffer from Depression, but you’d never guess because they are very, very good at hiding it.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t reduce their pain at all, and in fact, the energy that it takes to maintain the front is exhausting.  There’s more Depression around you than you would ever guess, but you don’t know it because few people are talking about it.

Depression often hides behind another issue which is then identified as “the problem.”  This frequently occurs with alcoholics and drug addicts, many of whom get addicted through trying to self-medicate a case of Depression.  This doesn’t make the chemical dependence any less important once it’s in place, but it is critical to also identify and treat the underlying Depression to strengthen long-term recovery.

A wide variety of distressing behavioral problems can arise out of desperate attempts to escape Depression.  Gambling, over-spending, abusive behavior, serial extra-marital affairs – all of these and more are sometimes a cover for the primary problem, which is untreated Depression.  If someone is behaving and choosing in a manner that is markedly out of character, Depression should be considered among the possible explanations.

Risk Factors for Depression

Depression can most often be traced to life stressors, losses, traumatic events, and the like.  The stress can take the form of a well-defined, painful event, or it may be the long grind of many lesser, chronic stressors that just don’t let up over long periods of time.  For a few, Depression can begin for no apparent reason, the result of an inexplicable shift in body chemistry that leaves the victim just as devastated as if they had just suffered some major life calamity.

Then there’s the question of genetic inheritance.  The bad news about genetic factors is that there are some; the good news is that what you really inherit is greater vulnerability to Depression, rather than a certainty that you will experience it.  You are at greater risk for Depression if there are others in your family who have suffered it, especially “first degree relatives” like parents and siblings.  If you have such family history, you can reduce your risk by living in the healthiest way that you can, to strengthen your system against that particular threat.  If you experience a second episode of Depression, you are more likely to have additional episodes in the future.  This is not a foregone conclusion however, since lifestyle figures heavily in your level of risk, and again, you can choose to live in ways that greatly reduce your chances of Depression, or reduce its duration and intensity if you do get it.

The lifestyle factors that greatly increase your risk of Depression, regardless of your family history, include the following:

*  Sedentary living.  Regular physical activity is one of your most important strategies for managing or preventing Depression.

Poor quality diet.  A diet high in processed foods, sugars, simple carbohydrates, and the like is practically an engraved invitation for Depression to show up at your door.  Your body is not meant to run on this junk, and can’t work very well if that’s how you fuel it.  Real foods, however – lean meats, fruits, vegetables, etc. – help your body to function at its best, thus guarding against Depression as well as every other form of illness.

*  High stress lifestyle.  Being constantly on the run, with little time for rest and recharging, eventually leads to burn-out.  If you don’t choose to stop, your body will make the choice for you, through Depression or some other medical problem.

*  Lack of nurturing for the spirit.  Depression occurs more readily among those who have few hobbies, personal interests, cherished friendships, or important causes to be part of.  The demands of living require a lot of energy from you – it is essential to build in ways to get some energy back, so that you never run out. 

Sadly, you might note that the factors above are a concise description of how more and more Americans are choosing to live.  The only bright spot is that having these factors in place does not guarantee a case of Depression; they do, however, make it much more likely.  Fortunately, these factors are all under your control, so you can improve them if you choose.  Please see What to Do about Depression for information on the mistakes that most people make when attempting to cope with Depression, and a brief description of effective self-care and treatment options.

Copyright © 2006, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.


Related articles:

Self-Help for Intense Anxiety

Sleep Well -- Self-Help for Insomnia

Dealing with Unwanted Feelings and Bad Days: Book Excerpt

Taking Care of Yourself When You Least Feel Like It: Book Excerpt

When is It Time to Consider Psychotherapy?


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