Depression and Holiday Stress: Are You Overwhelmed?

November 30, 2011 at 2:56 pm , by

Got the blues? You’re not the only one. Every month our friends at Yahoo! send us a snapshot of the top-spiking health searches, and this month the term “antidepressants” came in at number three (behind the more surprising “listeria” and “ear-wax removal”—go figure). In fact, in the past few months depression-related terms have been consistently at the top.

Then there’s this: a new report from Medco Health Solutions, Inc. found that 21 percent of American women took antidepressants in 2010, a 29 percent increase from 2001. When you look at drugs for mental health conditions on the whole, including anti-anxiety, antipsychotics and ADHD meds, roughly a quarter of adult women are taking them, compared with 15 percent of men.

We’re not surprised that depression is on women’s minds these days, considering the state of the world. Plus, the holiday season always adds stress along with the joys. Are you feeling more like Charlie Brown’s sad little tree this year? We asked Jennifer Yashari, M.D., a psychiatrist in Los Angeles and a member of the LHJ Medical Advisory Board, to shed some light on why depression seems to affect women more than men, and how to know if you need help.

One in four—that’s a huge number of women taking these drugs. Why the increase? And why aren’t men just as depressed or anxious?

First, women are more predisposed to depression. Before puberty, boys and girls have the same rate of depression, but after that women’s risk is higher. That’s partially because there are so many hormonal shifts in a woman’s life—the onset of puberty, pregnancy, postpartum, menopause—and there is a relationship between hormones and depression. In my personal practice, I don’t know that I’ve seen more women coming in for drugs, but I always have more female than male patients. It may be that women are just more comfortable seeking help for their mental health issues. I think men, more often, feel that it’s a major failure or weakness on their part.

As for the increase in antidepressants, these drugs are also used to treat other problems besides depression. We use them to treat anxiety, panic disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder, and also for some headaches and neurological disorders. So yes, that’s a high number, but there are a host of FDA-approved uses for these drugs.

The harsher economic times of the past couple of years also plays a role. Women are juggling childcare and household duties and work already, and then with all the unknowns because of the economy, it’s coming out more. And the holidays tend to exacerbate it, too.

So with the holidays in full swing now, what advice do you have for women who are feeling overwhelmed?

Everyone is allowed to have a hard time and to be stressed out. That’s normal. And that’s not just during the holidays. But if your stress and anxiety start to interfere with your sleeping or eating, or you’re really not taking any pleasure in anything these days, you should see a professional.

People tend to make their mental health a low priority. They’ll spend the money or the time on everything else. But in actuality, when you’re mentally stable, well grounded and calm, you can participate more fully in your life.

But not everyone who feels blue needs to take medication, right?

Studies show that talk therapy is just as effective as drugs. For many people therapy, even for a short time, works without medication. For others, medication really is an essential piece of getting well. The medications can help people who are anxious or depressed to really engage in therapy.

There are typically two types of people that I see. Some come in feeling desperate. They say, “Just give me something to make me feel better.” And I always have to remind them that a pill is not going to change their life circumstances. It may help them cope a little better for now, but therapy is usually the long-term way to develop coping mechanisms and a happy, healthy life. Then, there are other people who I am urging week after week to try medication. For some people, there really is a neurotransmitter imbalance in the brain that drugs can help correct. But they see it as a weakness. There is still a lot of stigma about being on a psychiatric medication. It’s a medical condition. You come into the world with a biological predisposition to depression. It’s not that they’re not trying hard enough.

It’s not simple, but the first step is accepting that you’re overwhelmed. Once you do that, you can focus on what you need to do to get some help.

 

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