Things have changed a lot in the past 30 years when it comes to our ideas about depression. In the 1980s and even the 1990s, people often still saw it as a moral weakness, a sign of being “crazy,” or as something to be dismissed completely.
Today most people not only know someone who has struggled openly with depression, but they can probably also rattle off a handful of symptoms just from watching the many depression medication television commercials that dominate the airwaves. The voiceover asks “Are you always sad and tearful? Have you lost interest in things you used to enjoy? If so, ask your doctor about this medication.”
These changes have been mostly for the better, reflecting a greater openness toward mental health treatment. An increased awareness of depression and its symptoms means someone is more likely to seek help and treatment. A willingness to talk about scary symptoms like suicidal thoughts keeps people safer and is inching us away from a culture that likes to hide problems under the rug.
But how much do most people really know about depression, an incredibly complex condition that has chemical, emotional, mental, and environmental components? How sure are we that we can recognize the signs given the variability between individuals’ backgrounds and life circumstances?
Depression is not a one-size-fits-all condition. While most of us have a much better understanding of depression than in the past, it can still be easy to miss. While there are typical symptoms, depression can look completely different from one person to the next.
In fact, there are a lot of ways depression can show itself far beyond well-known symptoms such as crying, loss of interest, and low energy. Learning the lesser-known, more uncommon signs of depression can better equip you to recognize it in yourself or others. And that means having a higher chance of getting help sooner.
- Rapid weight changes. The question “Have you lost weight?” often is considered a compliment. Generally speaking, in our culture, losing weight is a positive sign of health and fitness. However, unintentional weight loss, particularly substantial weight loss in a fairly brief period of time, can be a sneaky depressive symptom. Decreased or suppressed appetite is a chemical side effect of depression. If you find yourself going from eating three meals plus a snack daily to eating only once or twice a day for no particular reason (or the opposite, bingeing resulting in significant weight gain) it may be depression.
- Being short-tempered. In our minds, depression equals severe sadness, end of story. But for many people depression can manifest in behaviors such as being short-tempered, having a short fuse, and snapping at others. Though this is most frequently seen in men and teens, it can happen to anyone. Just as people with depression can find themselves crying without knowing why, they may just as easily find themselves irritable and angry without understanding it.
- Boredom. One of the classic symptoms of depression is loss of interest or enjoyment. We tend to picture that going hand in hand with feelings of sadness and loss. The fact is, this can look and feel like plain old boredom. Things stop sounding fun and seem not to be worth the effort. Little by little, you drop activities until only the simplest and least demanding (watching TV, surfing the Internet, napping) remain.
- Aches and pains. Until recently, somatic symptoms were not on most mental health professionals’ radar, but now pain symptoms are considered a red flag for depression. These can range from tenderness and skin sensitivity to muscle pain, stiffness or even stomach cramps and digestive problems. Start by ruling out other causes to determine whether the pain you are experiencing may be connected to depression or a medical issue. If no medical diagnosis accounts for the physical symptoms or your symptoms don’t improve with medical intervention, your aches and pains may be rooted in psychological distress.
- Trouble making decisions. Everyone has a hard time making choices from time to time. In fact, feeling overwhelmed may sometimes trigger despondency. It’s much less common, however, to struggle with making mundane, everyday decisions such as what to wear to work or what to make for dinner. The mental distress and low energy that come with depression can sometimes make these choices seem paralyzing and can send the person into a tailspin of anguish. People with depression-triggered indecisiveness may be overwhelmed by choosing a movie to watch or whether to get paper or plastic bags at the grocery store.
If you are struggling with some of these problems, especially in combination with “classic” depressive symptoms, it may be time to seek help from a trained mental health professional. While depression can be frightening and debilitating, it is also a disease with a long history of successful treatment.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime day or night at 1-800-273-8255.