Depression is an illness that is very common in Ireland but very treatable. The word is often used as a general term by people to describe feeling miserable, sad or distressed. However, when it comes to diagnosing an illness, doctors use the term to describe a person who has a depressive illness or low mood and who needs help to overcome this.

Depression is an underdiagnosed and undertreated illness. It is believed that only 50% of people seek help for depression. Of these, only 50% will receive adequate treatment. Women are three-four times more likely than men to have depression.

There are many types of depression and experts have different ways of categorising these. The broad term used to describe the different types is mood disorders. Within mood disorders, a common way of breaking down the different types of depression is as follows:
- Unipolar depression
- Major depression (a single episode or recurring episodes)
- Dysthymia (low level depression that lasts for over two years)
- Bipolar depression (‘highs and lows’ – feeling depressed alternating with elation and mania)

It is estimated that at any one time 280,000 people in Ireland have depression.

So how can you tell the difference between feeling miserable and actually having a depressive illness? The first step is to discuss the situation with your GP if you are having difficulty coping. The doctor can assess whether you need more help, or can reassure you that what you might be feeling will pass. Life throws up many different situations that can make us feel bad and we will all go through periods of sadness or grief. Your doctor will look for certain factors that may point to a diagnosis of depression. These include anxiety, feeling sad, lack of energy, fatigue, disturbed sleep and lack of interest in life.

There can be many symptoms that point to depression, some not as obvious as others. Sometimes a person may not feel sad at all. They may feel anxious or tired or perhaps have other physical symptoms like back ache or stomach ache.

A depressive illness is an overwhelming feeling that dulls thinking and has a negative impact on energy, eating, sleep and everyday activity.

Anyone can develop depression. It is estimated that one in 10 Irish people will have depression at some point in their lives. People who have had an episode of depression are at risk of having another in the future.

Depression is often preceded by difficult life events; bereavement, relationship or financial problems, difficulties at work or illness. People react differently to loss or problems, but sometimes this reaction can be disabling.

Other triggers are physical illnesses like diseases of the nervous system, heart conditions and certain infections. Prescribed medicines and recreational drugs may also act as triggers for depression.

There are no particular personality types that are more at risk from depression than others. It is frequently not possible to find any cause for an episode of depression. Depression is not an illness that it fully understood, despite the fact that it is treatable. However, it is thought that if your parents or grandparents have had depression, you may be more at risk. People who have suffered the death of a parent when they were young or other early traumatic life experiences are also more likely to get depression later on.

What is known is that when a person is depressed, there are changes in the way the brain works. Brain scans can show these changes. Certain chemicals in the brain may not be working properly and that is why drug treatment can be effective in helping to correct the problem, along with various forms of counselling. In addition, depressed patients have higher than normal levels of stress hormone.

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For more information and advice, contact the Aware Helpline at 1890 303 302