Depression. An estimated 121 million people worldwide have it. I am one of them. I have dealt with this demon for most of my life. (More)

October is National Depression Awareness Month. This article is meant to take away some of the stigma associated with depression, give some facts, and give some resources to get you started on the road to dealing with it.

I first became aware of my depression when I was a teen. Looking back, I was dealing with it for several years before that, but couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was. I missed a lot of school because I “didn’t feel well,” had crying fits, and did have a lot of legitimate illness that was stress-related or aggravated. It didn’t help that I was a social outcast, was small, and was a favorite target of the neighborhood bullies – not that that was a cause of the depression, but it did sometimes aggravate it.

One thing about dealing with depression is the stigma attached to it. Many people think that depression is not a real illness, or a depressed person can just “snap out of it.” Depression is generally caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. You can no more “snap out of it” as you could snap out of diabetes, cancer, or any other illness. I know people that are convinced that depression is not a problem. However, it is very real, and with over 9% of the U.S. population dealing with it at one time or another, I’m willing to bet that everyone reading this knows at least one person that has dealt with it at some point in their lives. Here are some well-known people that have dealt with depression (image courtesy of The International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression (iFred)).

There’s a lot of baggage that goes along with depression: stress related illness, withdrawing from people in your life, letting a lot of things slide – your health, taking care of your house, your family, your life. You just don’t care about much of anything anymore. Many of the people here know that I am a photographer. I actually didn’t pick up a camera for a few years when I went through one of my longer bouts of depression. That’s what it can do to you.

I had many periods of depression through my life, until I finally got help in my 40’s. Since then, I’ve done some research, and hope to share some things with you.

Here are some facts from the World Health Organization:

* Depression is common, affecting about 121 million people worldwide.
* Depression is among the leading causes of disability worldwide.
* Depression can be reliably diagnosed and treated in primary care.
* Fewer than 25 % of those affected have access to effective treatments.

Depression can ride hand-in-hand with other problems: anxiety, ADD/ADHD, and several other problems are known to sometimes have depression as a component of them. Not necessarily a cause and effect thing, but they do coincide a lot.

There are recent studies that are linking premature birth, low birth weight, and depression. For the record, I weighed under two pounds when I was born, and was born a month and a half early. I spent the first two months of my life in an incubator over 100 miles away from my parents.

Self-medication is also an issue with people suffering from depression. Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and risky lifestyle habits are some ways depressed people try to ease the pain of depression.

You need to be willing to admit you actually have a problem. Do you think you are dealing with depression? There are some online tests to help you help yourself, like this one, courtesy of the Mayo Clinic. However, they are no substitute for an evaluation by a qualified professional. If you have any question about whether you are depressed, please see a professional as soon as you can!

Statistics show that there are twice as many women with depression as men. However, I don’t know if that is actually the case. I think a lot of that stat comes from the fact that women are much more likely to admit they have a problem and seek help. Also, with men, depression often takes the form of anger, and as such may not be recognized or acknowledged for what it is.

There are two basic types of treatment for depression that are currently popular: talk therapy and medication. More often than not, a combination of the two ends up being more effective than one or the other on its own. When trying the medication route, it may take several tries before the right medication or medication combination can be discovered. There are currently no tests that are able to determine which medication is best for a person, but research is being done currently to attempt to find an answer for that problem.

If you are fighting depression – and it is a lifetime battle – there are things you can do to help yourself. One big thing that has helped me is to learn your triggers: a couple of big ones for me are stress and mental exhaustion. My last long-term job involved a lot of both. I was working basically two full-time jobs, and both were high stress. I was on call even when I wasn’t at work, and it wasn’t unusual for me to get called back to work in the evening to repair equipment that had gone down. Leaving that job has helped lower my stress level tremendously.

One thing both my doctor and my therapist suggested was for me to get a pet. I was living alone at the time, and they thought the company would help. They were right: meet Gaffer, my therapy cat.

Gaffer’s been with me for over four years now. A couple of friends of mine discovered him living under their porch. He moved into my apartment, and has been my companion ever since. He is about the most laid-back animal I have ever met, and he always knows when I’m having a hard time – often before I realize it myself. He’s a serious cuddle machine. In fact, he’s on my lap reading this diary as I write it.

A support system of some kind is a big help, whether it is personal or professional. I’m fortunate that I’ve had a few close friends keep an eye on me over the years, and I will always be grateful for that. Now, iriti and Kidlet do that for me. Iriti knows my triggers better than I do, and she watches for them. Kidlet’s bouncy personality generally relaxes me – it’s hard to be in a bad mood when Kidlet is around. I’ve had friends literally show up on my doorstep to drag me out of my apartment when I’ve been particularly bad at isolating myself. If you live by yourself, that is particularly easy to do.

Physical activity, if you are physically able to do it, is also helpful. Exercise releases chemicals in your brain that help counteract depression. My doctor and therapist were always asking me if I was getting regular exercise. It also helps relieve stress, which is a big plus.

Depression is like any other illness. There is no shame in admitting you have a problem and asking for help. If you broke your leg or had a chronic disease, you would get help. Depression is just another illness. Asking for help is hard to do sometimes, but it is the best thing you can do for yourself, and it might save your life.