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Depression: not a character flaw but a real illness

(BPT) - A broken leg means a trip to the emergency room. Chronic back pain leads to a battery of tests and time off work. Even a virus will get...

(BPT) - A broken leg means a trip to the emergency room. Chronic back pain leads to a battery of tests and time off work. Even a virus will get you some words of sympathy. But if you say you have depression, there's a good chance you'll get a quizzical look and dumb silence.

Depression is a serious illness affecting one in 10 Americans. And while the medical establishment has long known how serious depression can be, it still remains something of a mystery to many people.

Often, the advice to someone who admits to a friend that they have depression is "it'll pass" or "shake it off." Because there are no bandages or crutches involved, there's a tendency for friends, colleagues and even family to mistake clinical depression as simply a case of the "blues." While studies vary somewhat on the exact percentages, it is generally believed that about 50 percent of Americans see depression as a personal weakness and a similar percentage of people suffering from depression don't seek treatment.

"Being a mental health care professional, these statistics are absolutely alarming," says Dr. Douglas G. Jacobs, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the founder of Screening for Mental Health, Inc. "We have to bridge this understanding gap and the only way is through education - in schools, in the mainstream media, through the work of nonprofits, in fact by any means necessary."

One can observe the "understanding gap" in everyday life. The word "depression" is often used to describe simply "feeling down" - the bad days or weeks that soon pass. But when those feelings last two weeks or more, they could be signs of actual depression (formally called major depressive disorder or clinical depression).

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of depression may include the following:

* Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions

* Fatigue and decreased energy

* Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness

* Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism

* Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness or excessive sleeping

* Irritability, restlessness

* Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex

* Overeating or appetite loss

* Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment

* Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" feelings

* Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts

Looking at the list, it's not hard to see how someone suffering with depression could conceivably "explain away" their depression. But this situation is gradually changing.

One important stride that's been made is in the area of screenings for depression. Put simply, a screening is a questionnaire that gives the participant a clearer idea of whether or not they may have symptoms of depression and should seek clinical help. They are not meant to be diagnostic, but at the same time they are an anonymous, "low exposure" first step. And they are, intrinsically, educational.

If you, or someone you know, may be suffering from depression, you can visit www.helpyourselfhelpothers.org to take a screening. It is free, anonymous and available 24/7.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger because of thoughts of suicide, call 911 immediately. If there is no immediate danger but rather a need to talk to someone, call the national suicide prevention line at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).

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