Health Agenda

Mental Health

What is depression and could I have it?

Everyone goes through emotional ups and downs, but what’s the difference between feeling sad and being depressed? One in five of us will experience depression during our lifetime, but there are things you can do about it.

Clinical depression affects one in 16 Australians every year, and one in five of us will experience it at some point in our lives.

On top of personal circumstances, 2020 has been difficult for many of us – bushfires, floods and then a global pandemic. If you’re sad right now, you’re not alone.

For some of us, these feelings will last longer than a couple of weeks and significantly impact our lives, triggering either an acute one-off episode of depression or a recurring chronic condition. In both cases, help is at hand.

Causes of depression: It’s complicated

There are various factors that can contribute to depression. Things like losing a loved one, becoming a parent, heartbreak, and other big life events can trigger an episode. That could also be in addition to ongoing circumstances, such as an abusive relationship, prolonged work stress, discrimination or poverty.

Not everybody who experiences these things ends up depressed. Biological factors can make you predisposed, as can things like physical illness, age, gender and personality type.

Whatever the trigger, clinical depression involves changes to the chemicals in your brain. Serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine may stop working the way they should.

Signs and symptoms of depression

So, how do you know if you’re depressed, as opposed to just feeling down?

“The biggest thing is if there’s a change in the way you’re feeling and the way you’re behaving,” says Melbourne-based clinical psychologist Nasalifya Namugala Namwinga.

For example, if you’ve been feeling abnormally irritable, miserable, sad, frustrated or overwhelmed for more than two weeks, it could be worth delving deeper.

“Another one is inappropriate guilt,” says Nasalifya. “Feeling responsible for things… that are not your fault. That tends to happen quite a lot when people are clinically depressed.”

Changes in how you’re looking after yourself (that are unusual in your current situation) may also be a warning sign.

“So, things like showering, eating, sleeping more or less. Whether it’s more or less doesn’t matter so much. It’s whether there’s been a significant shift in the behaviour,” she says.

Lack of pleasure and loss of interest in things you like doing is another warning sign. Whether it’s binge-watching TV or anything else, during this challenging year we’re all probably doing more of the things we like, but are we actually enjoying them?

“Are you eating to feel good or to feel numb? Are you drinking more – a glass of wine after work to relax, or are you drinking to the point where you don’t even enjoy it anymore?” says Nasalifya.

Depression can also have physical symptoms, such as fatigue, sleep problems, changes in appetite and sex drive, inability to concentrate, and overreliance on alcohol and drugs.

Nasalifya says some people find it easier to accept physical illness than to acknowledge the possibility of being depressed.

“The only time they stop and realise they’re not okay is when they’re physically sick. That’s a useful sign to look at: are you getting physically sick and is that the only time you think, 'I might need a day off'?

“For people who wait until they’re physically unwell, it gives them reason to stay in bed: ‘I’m sick so I’m going to stay in bed for a week and not move.’”

Listening to yourself is hard, but if you’re clinically depressed, what you’ll often hear is a variation of “I’m worthless”.

“People don’t necessarily say that out loud, but they’ll think things like, ‘I won’t talk to anyone because no one likes me. I’m just wasting people’s time by engaging with them. People deserve better than me. I don’t deserve to take up this space’,” says Nasalifya.

Treatment options for depression

Depression and the various specific conditions that the term covers – everything from post-natal depression to bipolar mood disorder – is treatable, and treatment can be very effective. Most importantly, it addresses the heightened risk of suicide that’s associated with depression.

Treating depression can take several forms, including individual talk therapy using techniques like CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), medication such as antidepressants to help control symptoms, and community support programs.

While online resources such as this self-test on the Black Dog Institute website are good places to start, it’s important to take the next step and talk to your GP or mental health professionals.

Hesitating to seek treatment for depression is understandable. Some people might hold back out of a reluctance to be labelled – especially if you’re already feeling excluded from parts of society for other reasons like race, gender, sexuality, disability or religion.

And historically there has been a stigma attached to mental illness. Unlike the 40% of women with a mental health problem who’ll seek help, only 27% of affected men will look for support, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. 

Nasalifya says it’s important for everyone to reach out to services that make you feel comfortable – whether that’s to your GP, a specific practice or to a therapist who understands your circumstances.

“Self-care is important. Sometimes people think it’s having a bath, and that’s not really what self-care is,” says Nasalifya.

“Self-care is having enough compassion for yourself to know that you’re deserving of time and energy, to know when you’re not okay, and that you can stop and get help. Talk to yourself like you’re talking to someone you love.”

If you or your family needs help to deal with depression, HCF can connect you with the support you need through our holistic mental health and wellbeing support program.

Learn more

Where to find help for depression:

If you’re feeling depressed or anxious and need to talk to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Mariella Attard
First published August 2020

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