“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would be not one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell. I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better it appears to me.” –Abraham Lincoln
Imagine attending a party with these prominent guests: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Schumann, Ludwig von Beethoven, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Vincent van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keefe. Maybe Schumann and Beethoven are at the dinner table intently discussing the crescendos in their most recent scores, while Twain sits on a couch telling Poe about the plot of his latest novel. O’Keefe and Van Gogh may be talking about their art, while Roosevelt and Lincoln discuss political endeavors. But in fact, these historical figures also had a much more personal common experience: Each of them battled the debilitating illness of depression.
It is common for people to speak of how “depressed” they are. However, the occasional sadness everyone feels due to life’s disappointments is very different from the serious illness caused by a brain disorder. Depression profoundly impairs the ability to function in everyday situations by affecting moods, thoughts, behaviors, and physical well-being. Twenty-seven-year-old Anne (not her real name) has suffered from depression for more than 10 years. “For me it’s feelings of worthlessness,” she explains. “Feeling like I haven’t accomplished the things that I want to or feel I should have and yet I don’t have the energy to do them. It’s feeling disconnected from people in my life, even friends and family who care about me. It’s not wanting to get out of bed some mornings and losing hope that life will ever get better.”
Depression strikes about 17 million American adults each year–more than cancer, AIDS, or coronary heart disease–according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). An estimated 15 percent of chronic depression cases end in suicide. Women are twice as likely as men to be affected. Many people simply don’t know what depression is. “A lot of people still believe that depression is a character flaw or caused by bad parenting,” says Mary Rappaport, a spokeswoman for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. She explains that depression cannot be overcome by willpower, but requires medical attention.