May is Mental Health Awareness month. One of the most commonly diagnosed  mental health diseases in our country is depression. Not exactly dinner party conversation, but certainly deserving of  our attention in order to increase awareness and decrease the stigma associated with it.
Depression is a treatable illness affecting close to 25 million people in the U.S. according to statistics compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health. It occurs when, for whatever reason, certain brain chemicals get out of balance. It is not a character flaw or sign of personal weakness. Sufferers can’t will themselves well or “just get over it.” Depressive disorders can run in families. The actual cause is unclear, however it is known that a shift in body chemistry can bring on depression, due to experiencing a traumatic event, hormonal changes, altered health habits, the presence of another illness or substance abuse.
The symptoms of a depressive disorder are really quite distinct. They can include:
Prolonged sadness or unexplained crying spells
Significant changes in appetite or sleep patterns (more or less of either);
Irritability, anger, worry, agitation, anxiety;
Pessimism or indifference;
Loss of energy, persistent fatigue;
Feelings of guilt or worthlessness;
Inability to concentrate, indecisiveness;
Unexplained aches and pains;
Recurring thoughts of death or suicide.
Depression can affect anyone at any time of life, including childhood and old age. It often exists along with other mental or physical illnesses. Having depression can increase a person’s risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity and chronic pain. Treating depression can help people manage other diseases and improve their overall health.
Getting the proper treatment for depression is crucial to recovery. The first step to take if you think you or someone you know may be suffering from depression is to see your primary health care provider. Tell them how you are feeling, both physically and emotionally, and don’t leave anything out. This professional needs to know the whole picture in order to suggest the best course of treatment for your individual needs.
There are several different treatment options for depression. Support groups, talk therapy and medication can be used in any combination to help alleviate symptoms. Regular exercise has been shown to be an effective addition to the arsenal of treatment options as well. Your health care provider can help you decide what makes the most sense for you.
To quote the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website, “Wellness, or recovery from depression, is a return to a life that you care about. Recovery happens when your illness stops getting in the way of your life.”  If you are hurting, reach out for help. It’s there, and it works.

(Pam Maxson is a health educator at Noyes Hospital in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles, she can be reached at  pmaxson@noyes-hospital.org or 335-4327.)