What is Depression, and How Can I Manage It?

In recent years “depression” has become somewhat of a buzzword. It’s more common to hear about mental health in the news, in television shows, and in popular music.  This increased representation is a good thing—improved perception of mental illness makes seeking treatment more accessible.

 That said, there has been an increased rate of mental health diagnoses, particularly depression and anxiety, over the past decade. According to Mental Health America, the prevalence of mental health diagnoses increased by 1.5 million people from 2017 to 2018.  

The numbers only increased with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic as we all were hurtled into an unpredictable and often lonely existence. According to the CDC, “During late June [2020], 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use.” These numbers were higher for young adults, marginalized communities, essential workers, and caregivers. Specifically, 31% of adults reported experiencing depression and anxiety.  

As a therapist, I have had the humbling opportunity to witness the increased prevalence of depression and need for mental health related services.  With the rise of depression diagnoses, it’s common to wonder, “Do I have depression, or am I just feeling down today?” Use the guidance below to help you find an answer to that question and get the support you need.

what is depression

What is depression?

To be diagnosed with a depression related disorder, you have to meet criteria designated by the American Psychological Association’s DSM-5. One has to, “Experience 5 or more symptoms during the same 2-week period and one symptom has to be (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure.” Below are the symptoms that therapists and psychiatrists assess for when assessing for depression:

  1. Depressed mood nearly every day for most of the day.
  2. Significantly diminished pleasure or interest in almost all activities for most of the day on most days.
  3. Significant weight loss without attempting to lose weight or a marked increase or decrease in appetite. 
  4. A significant reduction in physical movements and slow-down in thoughts. 
  5. Loss of energy or fatigue on most days.
  6. Feeling worthless or substantial or inappropriate guilty on most days. 
  7. Poor concentration or indecisiveness on most days. 
  8. Recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation.

You may be reading these criteria and thinking, “I don’t meet enough of those criteria to have depression, but I still feel pretty awful.” We may not meet the diagnostic criteria for depression, but that doesn’t mean we’re feeling like our best, most authentic selves. Thankfully, tools utilized to manage depression can also be useful to manage generalized sadness, grief, or emotional pain. 

Tools for those who are experiencing symptoms of depression

Once you have a diagnosis of depression or acknowledgement that you want to improve your mood, find resources to combat your negative experiences. Below are some tips from Value Options on how to manage depression symptoms. 

  • Educate yourself about your depression. Knowledge is power. If you know how depression presents and/or what to expect from your depression, it is easier to treat.
  • Assess the company you keep. If you find that some of your social circle leads you to have negative self-talk or lower self-esteem, it may be time to assess the value of that relationship and potentially change the terms of that relationship.
  • Assess your lifestyle. Just as our social circles can impact our self-esteem and self-image, so can our lifestyles. Ask yourself what value and purpose each commitment or activity in your life brings you. Then, consider if it is worth maintaining.
  • Join a self-help group. There are a wide variety of self-help groups for depression and other mental health disorders. As a group therapist, I am able to see each week how powerful the support of a group can be for healing. For those located in Chicago, lists of support groups can be found here and here
  • Set SMART goals and celebrate your wins. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time Oriented. By setting goals that you can achieve, you are allowing yourself an opportunity to celebrate your own accomplishments which can greatly reduce depression symptoms. 
  • Follow a routine. Having a routine makes your day more predictable and allows for a sense of control. That way, when or if something goes awry, you have more stability.
  • Seek medical attention. Lastly, but most importantly, if you find that you are engaging with support systems and tools to combat your depression, but your experience is not improving, it may be time to consult with a therapist and/or psychiatrist. Mental health providers can be located on Psychology Today. Other resources for finding a provider who affirms your identity are located here. If you are having thoughts of suicide, call 911 or the national suicide hotline, 800-273-8255.

Tools for those who have a loved one with depression

Managing depression symptoms and finding healing can be a challenging process, but what can be equally as difficult is supporting a loved one who has depression. It is important to take care of yourself while caring for someone with depression. Here are some recommendations from the Mayo Clinic for how to be a supportive to yourself and loved one:

  • Educate yourself about your loved one’s experience. Education is helpful for building empathy for your loved one’s experience.
  • Encourage treatment. Someone who is experiencing depression may feel overwhelmed seeking treatment on their own. Partnering with your loved one may make seeking treatment more attainable. 
  • Identify warning signs of suicide, self-harm, and worsening depression. Suicide and self-harm are risky behaviors associated with depression. By knowing warning signs of these behaviors, you can support your loved one in maintaining safety.
  • Take care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup. It is okay to prioritize your personal needs when a loved one is experiencing depression. Ensure that you care for yourself. 

Depression is a painful and isolating disease, but it can be cared for. By understanding depression and utilizing the tools described above, hopefully your depression, sadness, or a loved one’s experience of depression will be more easy to manage. 

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call 911 or the national suicide hotline, 800-273-8255.

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Mental Health Think & Feel

About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.

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