Everyone has bad days. It’s perfectly normal to feel low when something bad happens (e.g., you break up with your boyfriend / girlfriend or fail an exam). If your low mood persists over a long period of time however, and it starts affecting your ability to succeed in your daily life (or is making you feel that life is not worth living), you may be experiencing clinical depression. If you think you or someone you know may be clinically depressed, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your school counsellor or family doctor.
There can be a lot of confusion when people use the word depression. Sometimes the word is used to mean almost any type of negative feeling (e.g., lonely, unhappy, sad, despondent, demoralized, disgruntled). When a health provider uses the word depression, they don’t mean a mood, they mean a mental disorder, and sometimes they use the phrase “clinical depression”. In this resource the word “depression” means a clinical depression, not a negative feeling.
Are there different types of depression?
Yes, there are multiple types of depression. This resource will focus on Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymic Disorder, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), because they’re the depressive disorders most likely to affect College/University students.
- About 5% of men and 10% of women will experience Major Depressive Disorder at some point in their life.
- At any given time, almost 3 million Canadians have depression but less than 1/3 of those people seek help.
- Depression can be treated successfully with therapy and medication.
What are the symptoms of different types of depression?
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
To be diagnosed with MDD, you must have either (a) an intense and persistent low (or irritable) mood or (b) a lack of interest or pleasure in the things you usually like, every day for at least 2 weeks. You also must have at least 5 of the symptoms listed below. These symptoms need to significantly interfere with your ability to live a normal life. Sometimes people with this kind of depression experience psychosis, which means their thinking is detached from reality. The symptoms are:
- Gaining or losing a significant amount of weight
- Sleeping much more or much less than usual
- Extreme restlessness or lack of movement noticed by others
- Feeling really tired or lacking energy
- Feeling worthless or inappropriately guilty (i.e., when you haven’t done anything wrong)
- Extreme difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Frequent thoughts of death or suicide, suicide plan, attempted suicide
- Feeling hopeless
This is very similar to MDD except that it is less severe and may last years without being diagnosed. The person may be able to get through daily functioning (with some struggle) but still has problems with his or her mood. The symptoms are:
- Depressed mood most of the day, more days than not, for at least 1 to 2 years
- Many of the additional symptoms listed above
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a.k.a. MDD with Seasonal Pattern
This is a type of depression that usually occurs at certain times of the year, often in fall and winter when there is less sunlight. The symptoms are:
- Same symptoms as above, but person has periods without any symptoms at characteristic times of year (often spring and summer).
- Needs to happen for more than one year to be diagnosed (otherwise, it’s not a pattern).
How is depression treated?
Depression is very treatable, using psychological therapies and/or medication. Often psychotherapy and medication will be prescribed together. Treatments should be provided by a qualified health professional, using best evidence interventions (i.e., interventions that have been supported by good-quality research). For depressive disorders, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and some medications called selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are supported by research and have been found to be very effective. To help you with getting the treatment you need, check out this resource:
In addition to psychotherapy and medication, you can help yourself by doing activities that will help fight negative feelings. It can be hard to feel motivated to do things on your own, but trying the tips listed on the next page will really make a difference in how you feel. If you don’t have depression, these tips can also be really helpful if you’re feeling stressed out, upset, or down.
Tips to fight negative feelings and to help with treatments for any mental illness
Go outside! Staying inside all the time, especially in winter, can be really draining. Getting outside and enjoying the sun and fresh air can lift your spirits.
- Exercise -Try to get at least a half hour of vigorous physical activity (e.g., a brisk walk) each day.
- Be social - Get out there! Even if you’re not in the mood, you may find that being out with people you like helps you to feel better.
- Stop thinking so much - Too much over analyzing and ruminating about things makes you feel worse. Turn off your brain, just for a little bit.
- Talk - Talk to people you can trust about your feelings and concerns. Sharing your feelings with someone else can feel like a weight is lifted off your chest.
- Relax - Take time for yourself everyday. Consider trying yoga, meditation or breathing exercises.
- Eat healthy - Eating a balanced diet gives your body the fuel it needs to combat stress. Try not to skip meals and go easy on the junk food. Check out www.choosemyplate.gov for some good information on healthy eating. They even have a program called SuperTracker that helps you plan out what you should be eating each day.
- Stay away from alcohol and drugs - Alcohol and many drugs are depressants, which mean that they may actually worsen your depressive feelings.
- Laugh - Watch a funny movie or funny videos. Talk to someone who makes you laugh. Exposing yourself to things that make you happy is an important part of feeling better.
- Problem solve - Take control. Consider one problem at a time and plan out possible solutions. Ask someone you trust to help you brainstorm. Don’t try to deal with everything all at once; that’s the fastest way to feel overwhelmed.
- Structure your day - Give yourself something to do, even if you start small. Even activities like showering, walking the dog, or making lunch can make you feel better. Having some structure in your day makes a big difference in how you feel. Keeping a daily diary or schedule can be a big help, especially if you’re a visual person.
- Get enough sleep - You need about nine hours per night.
Tips for helping others
If someone you care about has depression, the best and most important thing you can do is support them. In order to support someone else, you also need to look after yourself. Here are a few pointers:
- Educate yourself- Understanding what depression is and how it affects the person you care about will help you be less frustrated and more supportive.
- Encourage your friend to seek help - Having someone he/she can trust, like you, is so important. But someone trying to cope with a mental disorder also needs treatment. Encourage them to see a doctor or psychologist to get the help he/she needs. Even if the problems don’t seem that bad yet, seeking help early can prevent problems from getting worse.
- Listen - When you listen to and acknowledge their feelings, it sends the message that you care. Knowing that you have people who care about you is an important part of recovering from a mental disorder.
- Be positive - Positive moods can be contagious! It’s really easy for someone with a mental disorder to focus only on the negative aspects of his/her life. Sharing your positive mood may help them see things from a different perspective.
- Be patient - Sometimes it can be frustrating when they start acting differently and may not want to do anything they used to like. Take a deep breath and remember that depression is making them feel this way. He/she can’t just “snap out of it”. Getting impatient will only make the situation worse. Stay positive and be patient. Encourage them to participate in social events. He/she may feel like it’s too much work or effort, but will probably feel better afterwards.
- Don’t blame yourself - It is not your fault that they have depression. Many different factors, including his/her genetic background, environment, and life experiences are involved. No one can “make” another person have depression.
- Put yourself first - On an airplane, they tell you to always put your oxygen mask on first in an emergency before you assist someone else. You’ll be no help to anyone if you’re passed out. With someone with a mental illness, if you burn yourself out by always putting him or her first, you won’t be able to help anyone. It’s absolutely okay (and important) to take time away to take care of yourself.
- Don’t try to change your friend - You don’t have to solve all of their problems or turn him/ her into a different kind of person. Just be present and supportive.
- Have fun together - They need someone who can have fun, relax, and laugh with him/ her. These are all important parts of their mental health (and yours!).
- Be aware of suicide risk - If they talk about death or suicide, don’t ignore it or keep it a secret. Talk to a responsible adult who they also trust (e.g., residence assistant, counsellor, coach, professor). Let them know that you care about him/her and his/her life. If they are talking about suicide, it may be his or her way of indirectly asking for help.