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Removing the Stigma of Depression

By Jeremy Benedik Posted: 02/27/2012
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Bianca Copello | Staff
Chances are you know someone who is suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD).

Clinical depression is a mood disorder that affects roughly 10 percent of the general population. On college campuses, it is an even more prevalent illness. Some campuses, such as with Harvard University, report nearly half of the student body feeling depressed at some point during the semester, with almost 10 percent of students admitting to having contemplated suicide.

While I could not find any such studies at Emory, I doubt that the numbers are much different, since it has more to do with being students than where we go to school.

The illness has a typical onset between the ages of 18–24, right at the age most students are going through college. The range is not completely due to the added stresses of college though. Development of the illness is partly due to neurochemical and hormonal imbalances that result from changes an individual undergoes in the final stages of maturation.

But it is definitely important to address the fact that this period of life contains major changes in an individual’s life. The independence of living by oneself creates a lot of additional demands, not to mention the added weight of working for a living — or as is the case for college students — the severe rigors of obtaining an education.

To provide a bit of background, MDD is not limited to just feeling “blue” or “down,” but rather has a wide range of symptoms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, these include sadness, lethargy, loss of interest, appetite changes (loss or gain), sleep changes (insomnia or oversleeping), negative feelings directed toward oneself, suicidal thoughts, difficulty concentrating, proneness to becoming upset or chronic aches and pains. It is normal to have one or two of these sorts of symptoms, but prolonged (two weeks or longer) presence can be indicative of a much deeper problem.

The nature of depression as both an emotional and mental disorder leads to it being regarded with less severity than should be allocated. There is a current stigma in society held toward most forms of mental illness, and depression is not exempt. Personally, when I first started doing clinical research on individuals with the disease, I still held some of these stigmas. I did not understand why someone could not just “will” himself or herself to be better.

Soon, however, I came to realize just how detrimental the disease can be. Only now, after learning so much more about the disorder, can I look back and try to identify the origins of my own stigmas and realize just how fundamentally wrong they are.

The reputation of MDD is due, at least in part, to the way in which it is diagnosed. A psychiatrist recognizes a set of symptoms and diagnoses appropriately. Sadly, psychiatry has somewhat of a bad rap, and there are people who think that individuals sometimes just go to a psychiatrist in order to obtain a prescription for a quick pharmacological fix.

The way in which depression is diagnosed is not a problem. First, there is really no such thing as a quick pharmacological fix when it comes to depression treatment, but we will discuss more on that later.

More importantly, people need to be aware that MDD is not just a mental problem. It has biological foundations in terms of the effects on brain structure and functioning, but also on the body in general — hence why there are so many physical symptoms as well as psychological ones.

Recently, a study that was featured in an article of The Atlantic on Feb. 16 showed a proposed alternative diagnostic tool. A blood test is now being tested as a tool to identify patients with MDD. The blood of depressed individuals contains different biomarkers than are seen in healthy individuals, “such as inflammation, the development and maintenance of neurons and the interaction between brain structures.”

This shows that there are identifiable biological changes present in depressed patients, and this can hopefully alleviate any stigmas encouraged by the misconception that for MDD patients, the problem is just “all in your head.”

Another source of stigma for the disorder revolves around current methods of treatment, the most common of which are psychotherapy and antidepressants.

Therapy is not laying on a reclining sofa discussing your childhood as a bearded man attempts to identify when it was you first fell in love with your mother, nor is it just venting about all of life’s problems and current girl/boy-induced problems. There is a very good reason as to why all therapists are trained and licensed to practice — it is hard to do.

Therapy is focused on fundamentally changing the way a person thinks, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common process used. CBT focuses on re-aligning someone’s thought to be more positive and balanced rather than spiraling into negative, depressed thoughts.

One of the biggest stereotypes about depression is in regards to antidepressants as treatment. They are by no means a “quick” fix, nor are they “happy pills” that just make people euphoric. Antidepressants take at least two weeks to have noticeable effects and even then are focused on bringing someone’s neurochemicals back into balance.

Over 80 percent of individuals can recover from the illness through treatment. That being said, the effectiveness of either method depends on the individual and does vary depending on the patient.

For the unlucky 20 percent who find themselves with treatment-resistant depression, there is still hope. Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is a surgical procedure being researched at Emory that electrically stimulates the brain to help alleviate symptoms.

While this may sound a bit like the somewhat archaic (not to mention horrifying) electro-shock therapy, it is far from it. DBS inserts a very small electrode into a precise region of the brain that provides brief pulses of electricity — much like the function of a pacemaker in the heart.

As more and more research is done into depression and mental illness, a much brighter future lays ahead. We understand new ways to both recognize and treat MDD, and hopefully with the new knowledge, some of the old stigmas will begin to dissipate.

Being at a university on the forefront of this research, we should also be doing our part by learning about illnesses in order to try and dispel certain stigmas that may surround the disease.

The most important thing to remember is that help is out there. If you notice a friend acting down, or if you notice that you’re feeling down yourself, remember that Emory Student Health Services provides invaluable resources for anyone to receive the help they may need.

Hopefully it is clear, at least within our community and on our campus, that there is nothing wrong with just going in and talking about it.

Editorial Editor Jeremy Benedik is a College junior from Georgetown, Texas.

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