What WebMD says, and what I’d add* (in itallics):
“Most people feel sad or low at some point in their lives. But clinical depression is marked by a depressed mood most of the day, particularly in the morning, and a loss of interest in normal activities and relationships. This “depressed mood” is greater in magnitude and complexity than what many people mean today when they say they had a depressing day. You also do not need to have suffered any devastating setback in order to have depression. Symptoms are present every day for at least 2 weeks. It could last a few months, a whole year, and even multiple years. In fact, you could have been depressed for as long as you remember without even knowing it. In addition, according to the DSM-IV — a manual used to diagnose mental health conditions (though you should also talk to people who have been diagnosed to find out how it is really experienced) — you may have other symptoms with major depression. Those symptoms might include:
- Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt almost every day. Just because you can give convincing and plausible counterarguments to your loved ones’ reassurances that you are not worthless does NOT mean you are not depressed.
- Impaired concentration, indecisiveness. And diminished mental and intellectual capabilities. You think you are or have become stupid.
- Insomnia or hyperinsomnia (excessive sleeping) almost every day. Most of the time, it is not from fatigue but from a desire to escape reality or to avoid being reminded that other people are better than you.
- Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities nearly every day (called anhedonia, this symptom can be indicated by reports from significant others). This includes not just hobbies but basic self-maintenance like eating well and dressing in a presentable manner.
- Restlessness or feeling slowed down.
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide. Or fantasizing about other scenarios that would spare you of self-awareness, such as losing your sanity completely or being in a vegetative state.
- Significant weight loss or gain (a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month).”
(*I’m in no way accusing of the wonderful people behind WebMD of misrepresenting depression. I’m trying to show that symptoms of mental illness aren’t going to be as identifiable as symptoms of physical illness, and that they’re much more complex than cookie cutter bullet points may lead us to believe.)
Earlier today, I talked to an old friend, with whom I recently got reconnected, who struggled with depression for 2 years without even knowing she had a diagnosable, treatable condition. I can’t begin to imagine how confusing and terrifying that must have been for her. When I was told that my recurring feelings of stupidity and loss of social skills were the effects of an illness, it was a godsend. Later, I did somehow got to a point where I convinced myself that I wasn’t depressed, and had always been this “pathetic” — but at least some part of me was able to cling on to the hope, no matter how tiny, that I might not be as pathetic and worthless as I believed myself to be.
I can understand why so many sufferers of depression wouldn’t suspect having anything remotely close to a mental illness. The first time I suffered a bout of depression, it was minor depression (this condition is unfortunately named — the suffering of people with minor depression isn’t minor). Having never personally known anyone who’d been depressed, the medical word “depression” wasn’t quite in my vocabulary, and it naturally didn’t cross my mind that this pervasive sense of sadness and hopelessness was a symptom of a treatable mental condition. At some point, a mentor did mention to me that what I was describing sounded a lot like mild depression. Unfortunately, due to my misconception that depression had to be triggered by a devastating life event, I acknowledged his concern but quietly concluded that I couldn’t possibly be depressed. It was only after I’d recovered that I did more research and realized I might actually have had a form of depression.
If you are presently supporting a depressed loved one, I cannot stress enough how important it is to sincerely seek to understand how they are experiencing and perceiving themselves and the world around them. Lackadaisical attempts at understanding, such as simply reading Wikipedia articles, lead to false conclusions that the depressive mood goes away with exercise, spending time with people, or thinking positive. Unhelpful attempts to help only cause depressed individual feeling even more alone.
If you are presently battling depression, know that talking about how you feel is not a sign of weakness, nor a selfish cry for attention. You are merely talking about the symptoms of an illness that, in spite of having been medically recognized for several hundred years, remains shrouded with misconceptions. The people who love you want to understand and will stand by you.
If you have recovered from depression, know that telling your story is immensely encouraging to present sufferers. It is also an empowering means to affirm to yourself that you have overcome this frustratingly debilitating illness, and that it does not and has never defined you.