Women and Depression

Women are almost twice as likely to experience depression as men are. I don’t mean that they get the blues more often, although that may be true as well. What I mean by depression is clinical, or major, depression, the kind where your mood seriously impairs your ability to live a normal life.

That doesn’t mean that getting depressed occasionally isn’t normal. Most people react with sadness, grief or despair when certain events occur in their lives. But what differentiates normal depression from clinical depression is that the latter comes over you when there is no apparent reason or doesn’t go away within a reasonable amount of time after the precipitating episode has passed.

Many of you reading this will go, “Yeah, whatever,” and stop reading. You either don’t think that it can happen to you or you have an ingrained prejudice against the idea of depression being a mental illness. You think that you, or others who are depressed, should be able to “just get over it.” If that works, then you were probably experiencing normal, or situational, depression. If it doesn’t work, they you may be experiencing clinical depression.

You’ll need a doctor to determine if you’re experiencing a major depression. But there are warning signs. Some of them are:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in your usual activities, including sex
  • Restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism
  • Sleeping too much or too little, early morning awakening
  • Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling “slowed down”
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, or chronic pain

Generally, if you’ve been experiencing more than 3 or 4 of these symptoms for more than two weeks, you should see your doctor. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to book an appointment with a psychiatrist. Your family doctor may be able to treat you initially, or determine whether or not you need further treatment. However—and this is an important point—if your family doctor doesn’t take your complaints seriously, bypass him and make an appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist. Tell the doctor’s office that you want an assessment to determine whether or not you’re clinically depressed.

Be prepared to be prescribed medication. Most doctors will try some kind of anti-depressant for at least a trial period. If you’re not comfortable with that, say so, and ask about alternative therapies. But I urge you to remain open to the idea of taking meds, at least for a while. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed to “jump-start” your body’s natural resources for dealing with depression and then you can discontinue the medication, but only under your doctor’s supervision. Some medications have withdrawal symptoms that are worsened when you abruptly stop taking them.

There are two other kinds of depression that women need to be aware of. One is manic depression, or bipolar disorder. This is where you cycle between mania and depression. During the manic periods you might experience:

  • Abnormally elevated mood
  • Irritability
  • Severe insomnia
  • Grandiose notions
  • Increased talking
  • Racing thoughts
  • Increased activity, including sexual activity
  • Markedly increased energy
  • Poor judgment that leads to risk-taking behavior
  • Inappropriate social behavior

The other kind of depression is dysthymia. A person suffering from dysthymia will experience symptoms of depression to a milder degree but for more than two years. Although I was never diagnosed with dysthymia prior to being diagnosed with major depression, I’m convinced that I was dysthymic for most of my life. I can’t remember ever not being depressed. I used to wake up every morning with this overwhelming feeling of self-loathing and despair, even as a child. Once I was treated for major depression, these feelings went away. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to wake up and look forward to living!

Sources: Psychology Information Online and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).