Depression – the inside story

by Dale Knight

Here at science made simple, we love sharing our passion for science, and helping others who wish to do the same! This blog post is written by fellow science communicator and blogger Dale Knight. Dale has a degree in biochemistry and believes that everyone can do science! Follow her @unzippinggenes and check out her blog unzippinggenes.wordpress.com

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‘Come on, cheer up!’

‘Why are you feeling so bad?’ 

When something gets you down, it’s possible that you hear at least one of these comments. But for the sufferer of depression, these questions come with complicated answers.

‘What have you got to be sad about?’ Most of the time, nothing.

‘Come on, cheer up!’ Do you think I haven’t tried that?

‘Why do you feel like this?’ I have no idea, if I did, I would do something to change it.

 

Unfortunately that is the reality behind depression. It usually strikes with no warning, no reason, and no possible way of return. How do I know all of this? Because I am someone suffering depression.

This horrible illness manifests itself in many ways, but is usually characterised by a feeling that absolutely nothing is going right in your life, and you have no way of getting things back on track. Often it gets so bad that you think there is nothing left to live for.

The problem with depression is that there are mostly no physical characteristics, and it is therefore difficult for people who have never experienced it to empathise or understand. This is why, I believe, that there is a problem with mental health care in this country at the moment. Depression is difficult to understand if you have not had experience with it, so let me put it into a nice analogy for you.

Sander van der Wel CC-BY-SA

Imagine one day, you wake up having been unemployed for five months: you literally have no reason to get out of bed. Imagine one day you have lost both of your legs and cannot walk any more. Imagine one day your vision goes blurry and therefore you cannot concentrate. Imagine one day you start seeing in black and white, and you therefore cannot see any colour in the world. Now imagine all of these things hitting you at once. There are obviously those unfortunate few who really have these problems who could tell you what it feels like. But I bet, that if you know anyone suffering from a mental health problem, they could describe to you something similar.

 

This is on a bad day. On good days, a person suffering depression can act like anyone else: laughing, joking, socialising with friends; everything seems great. This is another reason why depression is such a difficult illness to comprehend. How can one person seemingly go from being the life and soul of the party, to not being able to get out of bed?

What causes it?

Serotonin: By CYL (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

The causes of depression are complex and are mostly unknown. But one of the known effects is a decrease in the levels of a hormone called serotonin. Now it is unclear as to whether lower levels of serotonin cause depression, or depression causes lower levels of serotonin. But as serotonin is a hormone which helps regulate mood and social behaviour, this is obviously largely implicated in depression.

Can it be treated?

Medicines called SSRIs are used as antidepressants as they effectively increase the levels of serotonin in the body available for your brain to use. Interestingly, recreational drugs such as MDMA and cocaine also act to increase serotonin levels which leads to the highs that are experienced. As well as these, other factors such as exercise, sunlight, and a change in diet also increase levels of serotonin in the body.

In the short term, the way to come out of a bad spell is different from person to person. Some people need to surround themselves with people, some people need to listen to music. Some people just need to go and do something they enjoy which doesn’t required much deep thought, for example baking a cake, or doing a crossword.

Whatever someone’s way out is, someone with depression often doesn’t need or want someone to hold their hand, they just need to know that people around them understand what is going on and can support them whenever they need. So if you know someone with a mental health problem, I urge you to let them know that you are there for them no matter what.

Mental health week in the UK is 11th to 17th May (coinciding with my birthday, just saying) and I urge you all to try to change the way the public view mental health. It is not something to be feared, or to be trivialised. Mental Health issues can be as serious as physical health issues, and nobody would trivialise those.

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