December 8, 2023

Dealing with Depression? You’re Not Alone. Don’t Lose Hope

Author: Kate Findley
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By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

Millions of Americans struggle with depression. Many don’t seek out help as they believe it’s a lost cause, but Professor Vishton suggests that you should re-think this limiting belief.

Woman looking outside during a global pandemic
National surveys have found that just about everyone experiences mild depression for a brief time, at some point in their lives. Photo By Maridav / Shutterstock

What Is Depression?

Depression is often referred to as the common cold of mental illness. It’s described that way, because, like a cold, almost everyone catches a bit of depression from time to time. Unlike a cold, though, dealing with depression can be more than an inconvenience—it can be a major obstacle.

A large-sample, national survey sponsored by the National Institutes of Health in the United States suggested that almost 16 million adults reported at least one major depressive episode in 2014. That’s a little less than seven percent of the total adult population.

In this case, the term major depressive episode is defined as a period of at least two weeks during which a person experiences continued depressed mood or loss of interest in pleasure, along with at least four other related symptoms—for example, problems with sleeping, problems with eating, reduced energy, reduced ability to concentrate, and substantially reduced self-image.

These criteria are established in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders every few years by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is currently in its fifth major revision, and so it is called the DSM-5.

If you include milder definitions of depression—for example, milder symptoms or shorter durations of those symptoms—then those numbers of people affected go even higher. Depression is like the common cold of mental illness, but it’s not always just a mild source of annoyance. Full-blown depression can be completely debilitating.

How Most People Deal with Depression

The vast majority of those millions of depressed people identified in those large-scale surveys reported that they had not sought treatment and that they didn’t intend to. Most people just suffer with their depression—even major depression. Given the scale of the problem, this is tragic because depression is a very treatable disease.

Many very capable professionals can administer a combination of talk-based therapy and medications. Serious depression can lead to major life problems and even suicide.

“If you’ve had depression that has significantly affected your ability to work, play, and enjoy life for an extended period of time—more than a month—then I urge you to consider seeking treatment,” Professor Vishton said.

The vast majority of people, however, never seek treatment to deal with their depression. They suffer; do their best to move on with their lives; and, eventually, the depression subsides. 

Another reason that depression is referred to as being like the common cold is that—like a cold—it often does go away on its own. Our brain possesses a variety of self-regulatory processes that compensate for that depressed feeling even if you don’t try to do anything to address it.

However, you can take actions to make that mental cold go away faster. With a cold, you drink lots of fluids, get plenty of rest, maybe eat some chicken soup, and the cold subsides. You can do similar things to address that mild depressed feeling that we all get sometimes.

Depression can often occur as a result of our modern lifestyles, where we are sitting for long periods of time, which can lead to both physical and mental stagnation. Sometimes just moving our bodies is enough to lift us out of our stagnation. Professor Vishton explains how in tomorrow’s article—stay tuned.

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

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