The Wintertime Blues


While many people might feel down as winter sets in, Ekaterina Tikhoniouk examines the wider issue of clinical depression

So what is depression? Is it a phase, an illness, or a symptom subconsciously made up to get attention? Everyone’s opinion differs: in the time of older generations it was considered a mental illness, while in the minds of youths, it will forever be associated with goths and emo kids that wear eyeliner and skulk around the place, hiding from the searing rays of the sun and moaning about how the world hates them.

But depression is a serious mood change that involves persistent and severe feelings of sadness and worthlessness, often along with problems sleeping, changes in appetite, and unsociable behaviour. According to statistics, depression is on the rise, with recent studies suggesting that roughly seven per cent of people aged 21 and over will suffer an episode of depression at some point during their lives. The US is greatly affected, with 1 in 5 American adults suffering from some form of depression.

depressionThe statistics for children and youths are much more worrying: in Ireland, as many as 0.5 per cent of children and 15 per cent of adolescents aged 13-21 experience a major depression, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents in this age group.

As evidenced by these worrying statistics, teens and young adults are much more likely to suffer from a mood disorder, be it depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or mood swings.

Depressive disorders are exhibited earlier in life with every passing generation. This is happening because although the standard of living has soared since our grandparents’ times, the life of the average teen has become even more fraught with worry and strain. While our grandparents, and maybe even our parents, dealt with a simpler and shorter list of stresses, the modern youth is faced with a never-ending series of trials and hardships such as bullying, peer pressure, relationship problems, exams and much more.

Teenagers at secondary school and young adults starting college are especially at risk, as they are still adjusting to society and trying to find own place among their peers. At this time they are most vulnerable to mood disorders and anxieties.

But depression is in no way limited to angsty teens and college Freshers. Depression doesn’t discriminate between boys or girls, young or old, poor or rich – it can happen to anyone. Everyone has, at one stage or other in their lives, experienced some form of what psychologists call a ‘mood disorder’.

Every single person has felt demoralising days of frustration or sadness, either after a wearisome week at work, when cramming for an important exam, or when faced with a tough decision. For many people, these episodes pass with time; for others there is a chance of them developing into full-blown mood disorders. It is, in fact, estimated that around 17 per cent of people will experience a major episode of depression at some point in their lives.

Mood disorders appear to be prevalent in college though, with many students feeling overloaded with work, worrying about assignments, project deadlines and exams. Many have also reported feeling alone and friendless, especially in the bigger colleges. With almost 25,000 students, UCD can feel daunting and impersonal, especially to first years just finding their feet. Another problem is that it’s considerably harder to make friends in courses such as Arts where any class can have up to 500 students.

Depressed people can’t always put a finger on exactly why they are depressed: in some cases it is a general feeling of low self-worth and helplessness, while in others it has a definite cause. Depression can be caused by both larger negative events, such as the death of a close friend or relative, the loss of a job or failing an exam, or by many small events that contribute to the negative mood, such as a friend forgetting to text back, or being turned down by a member of the opposite sex.

There are also other causes – depression appears to have a genetic component. People whose close relatives have a serious mood disorder are ten times more likely to develop one themselves. In addition, women are twice as likely as men to develop depression, although why this occurs remains unknown.

Another factor that affects mood disorders is the individual’s location. Studies recently found that those living in densely populated areas are 30 per cent more likely to develop depression than their rural counterparts.

Depression can have a severe effect on people. The afflicted often feel they’re ‘not good enough’, that they are being punished for their mistakes, and that every negative event is their fault. People with severe depression often delude themselves into thinking that they are worthless and are disliked. The sad thing is, that the depressed person is caught in a vicious, unbreakable circle: the worse they feel, the more they withdraw from people, which in turn makes them feel even more unpopular and alone, which only serves to strengthen their negative outlook.

People with mood disorders don’t have the same outlook on life. All events are coloured with a negative tint. Negative events are overemphasized; a scratched car or a failed mid-term are seen as the end of the world, while positive events such as getting an A in an exam are attributed to pure luck. In some situations this low self-esteem leads them to blame their miserable situation on their own inadequacies, as well as shutting themselves off from friends and family.

So how can you tell if your friend or relative is not just grumpy or stressed out, but actually clinically depressed? There are five main symptoms of depression – a prolonged sad and apathetic mood, feelings of worthlessness, desire to withdraw from other people, difficulty getting to sleep and waking up very early, and either a loss of appetite or overeating.

Once identified, depression has a number of treatments. The main treatments are therapy or anti-depressant drugs, but the support of family and friends is also crucial. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy tries to change the individual’s negative way of thinking, while anti-depressants deal with the physical side of the depression. Although quite effective, these drugs treat the symptoms, not the actual causes of depression. This means that some people begin to relapse once their medication is withdrawn.

But on a brighter note, statistics show that nearly 80 per cent of all depressed people who seek treatment have a significant improvement within a couple of weeks. Such treatment rates make anybody wonder why of every three sufferers, only one might seek professional help?

The main reason is that, to this day, disorders are still thought of as a taboo subject. The flawed idea that depression is a mental illness is hard to shake, and many still believe that a depressed person is somehow abnormal or different from everyone else. Thus many sufferers never seek help, instead choosing to battle it out alone. But this decision can have dire results.

There are currently about 400 deaths from suicide per year in Ireland, but for every death, there are an estimated 10-20 suicide attempts. Statistics also show that almost 70 per cent of these deaths occur in men. These figures are an average for Europe, but unlike others, Ireland has a shockingly high rate of youth suicide. The sad thing is that many of these deaths could have possibly been prevented.

So, if you notice that a friend, a housemate, or even a casual acquaintance, constantly seems gloomy, withdrawn or struggling with despair, don’t ignore their situation. Depression is a serious disorder, which in some cases can be fatal.

If you think that you or someone you know might be depressed, call the UCD Health Centre, you can speak to a counselor or psychiatrist. 01 716 3133