"Depression is no different than diabetes or high blood pressure. You can have a normal life with this disease, but you need to treat it," said Dr. Farhad Sholevar, chief of the Psychiatry Division and the Older Adult Behavioral Health Center at Blue Mountain Health System.
Sholevar recently spoke with members of the community about the most common symptoms of depression.
He also offered hope for people suffering from the disease.
While there is no cure for clinical depression, doctors now have several effective treatments for symptoms.
"Depression is a disease, not an emotion," he said. "It is also a lot more common than you think."
He noted that most people know at least one family member suffering from major depression and several more friends and family members who may be undiagnosed.
Typical symptoms of depression include:
• Constant sadness or "gloomy" thoughts
• Change in sleeping patterns
• Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
• Sleeping all the time
• Fatigue or tiredness
• Mental "fuzziness" or poor memory
• Lack of interest in favorite activities
• Change in appetite
• Eating much more or less than usual
• Suicidal thoughts
"In different people, it manifests itself in many different ways," he said. "Depression may not show itself with psychological (or mental) symptoms, but with physical symptoms."
He noted that there are three groups of people who are especially likely to show physical signs of depression the overworked, the elderly, and teenagers.
These groups rarely experience signs such as sadness or suicidal thoughts, but will instead notice changes in their eating and sleeping habits, frequent tiredness, and lose interest in their favorite activities and hobbies.
Adolescents and teenagers are also at risk for untreated depression because they will not seek help for their problems.
They may become angry, aggressive or defiant as they become more depressed, never realizing that their symptoms may come from a treatable problem.
"Many people will overlook these symptoms. A lot of people with severe depression go untreated, and they suffer for months or even years," he said.
Scientists now believe that depression is caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters or chemicals in the brain. These neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, work to control our moods and emotions.
People with depression typically have fewer neurotransmitters available in the brain, or their brain is unable to use these chemicals correctly. Antidepressant medications are used to correct this imbalance.
Some people with depression do not want to take medication or cannot stand the side effects of anti-depressants, said Sholevar.
A doctor can tell you if medication is right for your situation, or if you will need to take medication for a long period of time.
Elderly adults experiencing signs of depression may be able to take medication for a short time and then stop once they feel better.
Adolescents and adults with a history of depression usually need more long-term treatment.
"The best place to start is to speak with your primary care provider," he said.
Your doctor will likely do several tests to rule out underlying conditions such as thyroid problems that can cause signs of depression.
If tests come back normal, they may prescribe an antidepressant. If this medication helps, continue to follow the advice of your primary doctor.
"Many primary care physicians will try one or two things before they request consultation," he said. "If you're taking medication for two to three weeks and not feeling any better, you may want to see a specialist."
A specialist will work to find the right type of medication and therapy to treat your depression, and then refer you back to a primary care doctor for monitoring.
Sholevar encouraged friends and family members who notice signs of depression in a loved one to seek help.
Don't blame them for their problems, or tell them to be more cheerful.
"If she could snap out of it, she wouldn't be waiting for your encouragement. Nobody wants to feel miserable," he said. "It's so important to be open and honest about it."