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Not a day goes by nowadays without reading an article about the prevalence of depression in modern society.  One in four people will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year.  Depression, alongside anxiety, is the most common mental health difficulty in the world.  It is estimated that one in ten people will suffer from depression at some point in their lives.  A Labour Force survey found that in the UK alone, 9.9 million days of work were missed due to stress, depression or anxiety in 2014/15.
But what is depression and how do we know when we are suffering from it?

Our mood fluctuates on a daily basis.  Some days we feel great, full of energy and positive thoughts.  On other days we might feel completely flat and lethargic, unable to muster the energy or enthusiasm to pull ourselves from beneath the duvet.  There are times when we all feel low or unhappy.  This, however, does not necessarily mean we are clinically depressed.  We might feel depressed, but it takes a medical professional to diagnose depression as an illness.  The difficulty is, unlike other illnesses, there is no simple blood test that can be carried out to determine whether you are suffering from depression.  More complicated still, the symptoms of depression can vary from person to person and what one person experiences when they are depressed might be entirely different to another. 

Common symptoms of depression are:
-    a continuous (persistent for several weeks or even months) low mood or sadness
-    feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
-    low self-esteem
-    difficulties with sleep e.g.  sleeping too much or too little
-    tearfulness
-    unexplained aches and pains
-    changes in appetite and weight e.g.  eating too little or too much
-    feelings of guilt
-    problems with family / friendships / other relationships
-    irritability or intolerance of others
-    an inability to make decisions
-    no longer getting enjoyment out of things which you previously found enjoyable
-    a lack of energy
-    a lack of motivation or interest in things
-    anxious or worried thoughts
-    thoughts of self-harm or suicide

There is no single cause of depression.  Some people find that a traumatic or upsetting event (such as a relationship breakdown or bereavement) can be the trigger that causes them to become depressed.  Other people find themselves suffering from depression without any good reason, the low mood crept up on them without warning but has subsequently had a dramatic impact on their life.  Some people claim that the large rise in diagnosed cases of depression since 1945 shows that depression is a modern illness that can be blamed on the fast-paced, high-stress lifestyle of the twenty-first century.  Others point out that it is more likely that professionals have simply gotten better at identifying and understanding the symptoms of depression and that it has always been a part of human experience. 
However depression develops, it can be treated and overcome.  In cases of mild depression, many doctors avoid medication and recommend a combination of exercise and “watchful waiting”, where the GP monitors the patient’s progress over a number of weeks to see if the symptoms of depression lift naturally.  For moderate to severe depression, GPs can prescribe antidepressant medication.  Antidepressants can help with the symptoms of depression but might not address the underlying issues that have caused the individual to become depressed in the first place.  This is where talking therapies such as counselling or psychotherapy can be beneficial but for such treatments to be effective, the individual must be prepared to commit both time and energy to the process. 

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
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