To Your Health: Depression is not a character flaw

By Melissa Waterman

“Depression still has a stigma, ” said River Martin, help line manager at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Maine. “But knowing that others have it helps normalize it. It’s not a character flaw.”

Depression is a mental health disorder, affecting an estimated one in 15 adults in the United States, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). It is characterized by certain symptoms that persist for more than two weeks, such as loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities, changes in appetite, increased fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, sleeping too much or too little, and thoughts of death or suicide. Severe depression can wipe a person out, rendering them unable to function at work or at home.

Many factors contribute to the onset of depression, according to Martin. “There’s genetics or a traumatic event which can occur at any time in life. Depression is also caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain,” he said. Continuous exposure to violence, abuse, or poverty may make some people more vulnerable to depression.

The onset of depression often occurs when a person enters the later teenage years or early 20s. Afterward it may be reoccur throughout one’s life. “But depression can come at any time,” Martin cautioned. One in six people will experience depression at some point, according to the APA.

Depression is very different from general sadness or grief. Sadness and grief are normal reactions to loss of a loved one or a job and may ebb over time. Depression is a black hole into which no light comes. The depressed person is enveloped in feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing and may find the activities of daily life impossible to manage.

The COVID pandemic has had a clear effect on the mental health of Maine residents, according to Mental Health of Maine Adults During the Pandemic, a 2021 study commissioned by the John T. Gorman Foundation. More than two out of five people in the state have been dealing with depressive symptoms during the pandemic.

Certain activities can help reduce the symptoms of depression. For many people, regular exercise creates positive feelings and improves mood. Getting sound sleep on a regular basis, eating a healthy diet and avoiding alcohol, which is a depressant, can also reduce symptoms of depression. Finding a therapist to talk to, however, is a key element for many people navigating their way out of depression; NAMI Maine and other organizations can help a person locate a therapist in their area.

Medications may also help release a person from the grip of chronic depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are considered safe and generally cause fewer side effects than other types of antidepressants, according to the Mayo Clinic. A person may need to try several medications or a combination of medications before finding one that works. Some medications require several weeks or longer to take full effect.

“Reaching out for services is the strongest thing a person can do,” Martin said. “You are bettering your life and overall wellness.” The pandemic has led more people to seek mental health help from his organization, a result that encourages Martin. “A lot of people are reaching out for the first time and talking about it [depression]. We are starting to see a shift in thinking about mental health and physical health.”

Where To Seek Help

The Maine Statewide Crisis Hotline 1-888-568-1112
Call this 24/7 line to speak with a trained crisis clinician if you are concerned about yourself or someone else.

Intentional Peer Support Warmline 1-866-771-9276
Call this 24/7 peer support line to speak with a trained peer support specialist who has life experience with mental health and/or substance use recovery.

NAMI Maine Helpline 1-800-464-5767, Option 1
The NAMI Maine Helpline provides support, education, and advocacy for anyone with questions about mental health concerns.

Man Therapy, www.mantherapy.org
This is not a helpline, but it is a great resource for men who may be hesitant to talk about mental health.

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