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Depression: The Basics

An estimated one in ten U.S. adults suffers from depression.  Many people have their first experiences with depression while they're in college.  This article will help answer the following questions:

  • What is depression, and how is it treated? 
  • What resources are available at and near the University of Washington for students, faculty, staff and others?

Symptoms

While most of us experience sadness at one time or another, those with depression have long-lasting symptoms that can be debilitating, making daily activities difficult or impossible.  People who are depressed may describe feeling low, sad or blue.

The symptoms of depression vary from person to person, but may include feelings of:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Emptiness
  • Hopelessness
  • Guilt
  • Worthlessness
  • Helplessness
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness

You might also experience:

  • Physical discomfort like aches and pains
  • Insomnia (the inability to go to sleep and/or to stay asleep)
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Lack of energy
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Lack of appetite or the desire to eat too much

depression.jpgTypes of depression

Depression can manifest itself in a variety of ways.  It might be milder (dysthymia) or severe (major depression).  Only a medical or mental health provider can help you determine if you are depressed.

Major depressive disorder

A major depressive disorder can disrupt one's life.  People with major depression are often unable to perform everyday activities, like going to class, sleeping or eating.  Some people might have one episode of major depression in their lives, but for others it occurs repeatedly.

Dysthymic disorder

People with dysthymia have a milder, persistent kind of depression that lasts for two years or more.  Even though it might not be as debilitating as major depression, it can still be very disruptive.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

All too common in the Pacific Northwest, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression brought on by a change in seasons.  Usually, the lack of light during the winter months is responsible.

Bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression)

Bipolar disorder is different, and much less common, than depression, although it shares some of the same characteristics.  People with this disorder experience periods of depression as well as intervals of mania.

Causes of depression

There's no one thing that causes depression, although there are many risk factors.  A risk factor is a characteristic, condition or behavior that increases your risk of developing a disease or illness.  In the case of depression, some of these risk factors have to do with your environment:

  • Living away from friends and family for the first time
  • Facing new and difficult schoolwork
  • Financial worries
  • Experiencing a significant life change, like the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship

Others risk factors have more to do with your genetic makeup and your background, such as:

  • Being a woman (women are more likely to experience depression)
  • Having biological relatives who have or have had depression
  • History of abuse of alcohol, nicotine (cigarettes) and/or drugs
  • Having experienced trauma as a child, such as abuse

Diagnosis

If you're concerned that you might be depressed, the best thing to do is to talk to your doctor or a mental health care provider.  If you are a student at the University of Washington, you can visit Hall Health or the UW Counseling Center for help.  If you are a UW faculty or staff member, or member of the general public, check with your insurance company to determine which providers are in your network.

Your provider will ask you questions about your symptoms, your mental health history, your family history of depression and your medical history.

Treating depression

People being treated for depression usually receive either medication (antidepressants), psychotherapy (talk therapy), or both.  Only your provider can help you find the treatment that's right for you. 

Antidepressants

Antidepressants are medications that work on brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, typically serotonin, norepinephrine and/or dopamine.  These chemicals are thought to regulate your mood, although scientists do not yet fully understand the mechanics of depression.

Usually, people take medication for depression on a daily basis.  Your provider may start you on a very small dose, which could gradually increase over the course of weeks or months.  You may not notice that you feel better for some time.  If you don't notice any improvement after several months, your medical or mental health provider may recommend that you change medications or add on another type of drug to your regimen.

Many Hall Health providers are able to prescribe antidepressants to help you manage depression.  Contact us to schedule an appointment.

Psychotherapy

Therapy involves regular visits to a mental health professional to treat an illness.  There are a number of types of therapy, including:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a form of treatment in which you look at the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors that may contribute to depression
  • Interpersonal Therapy, which focuses on symptoms and related issues over a short span of time (approximately 20 weeks on average)

Mental health practitioners may use more than one style of therapy, and may suggest that you be seen regularly or as needed over the course of a few months or for as long as you are experiencing symptoms.

Hall Health's Mental Health Clinic offers psychotherapy, as does the UW Counseling Center.

Group therapy/support group

Some people benefit from group treatment, as opposed to one-on-one visits with a provider.  Hall Health offers ongoing group sessions that can help with depression.

Paying for treatment

Many private insurance plans pay for the medications used to treat depression, and some pay for psychotherapy as well.  Read more about the cost of services at the Mental Health Clinic.  You can also contact your insurance company to inquire.

What to do in a crisis

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis related to their depression, get help right away.  If you are a student, you can schedule a crisis intervention visit.  Other options include:

Read our article on suicide prevention here.

Additional resources

On campus

Mental Health Clinic (Hall Health) (206) 583-1551 Monday through Friday from 9:00am-4:30pm

UW Counseling Center (206) 543-1240 Monday through Friday 8am-5pm

Special light therapy that helps treat Seasonal Affective Disorder is available at no cost through the UW Counseling Center.

Around town

The Seattle chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, which meets twice monthly at Harborview and University of Washington Medical Center

The Seattle Community Network maintains a low-cost counseling directory

Online

The National Institute for Mental Health pages on depression and college students

 

Authored by: Health Promotion staff

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff, January 2014