Women and Depression: New Treatments and Alternative Therapies
Her rocky three-year marriage was coming to an end, but Mary Bear never let on to her coworkers how lifeless and empty she felt. "All my energy went toward putting on a happy face and being functional at the office," recalls Bear, who was 27 at the time and worked as an accountant in Atlanta to support herself and her one-year-old daughter. "But on the inside I was twisting down a dark silo." At home she barely had the strength to pop a frozen pizza or macaroni and cheese into the microwave. Shortly after dinner, she would put her toddler to bed and then crawl under the covers herself. "Sleep was my only escape," Bear recalls.
She had been seeing a therapist, which brought brief pockets of relief, but gradually Bear's depression worsened. By the time her daughter was three, lethargy had almost completely taken over. Bear would spend entire weekends prone on the couch. "Sarah would play dress-up or bring her Lego toys to the side of the sofa, so she could be close to me," Bear recalls. "She'd say, 'Look at this, Mommy,' and I'd open my eyes for a second, reply, 'That's nice, Honey,' and then close them again. I felt numb, not physically present. Alone in my room, I would cry because I knew I was missing my little girl's childhood."
But perhaps the saddest aspect of Mary Bear's story is that variations of it are played out in millions of homes every day. An estimated 19 million Americans are diagnosed with clinical depression every year. And a full 12 million of them are women, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. About one in eight women can expect to develop depression during her lifetime; this occurs most frequently between ages 25 and 44.
Of course, it's normal to feel down when you're going through a rough patch, such as a divorce, a job loss or the death of a loved one. But clinical depression is a different beast from situational depressions, which usually ease and lift with time. True depression is generally characterized as a persistent, profound, and inescapable sense of sadness, hopelessness, apathy, and fatigue. Sufferers often say they lose interest in all or most of the activities that once gave them pleasure. "Some who are affected more mildly are able to perform typical activities but with substantial effort," says Nada Stotland, M.D., professor of psychiatry and obstetrics/gynecology at Rush Medical College, in Chicago, and vice president of the American Psychiatric Association. For others, depression can be much more severe, rendering them unable to work or care for themselves or their families. And symptoms can be chronic or transient, with depressed episodes interspersed with periods of normalcy.
Perhaps because symptoms of clinical depression exist on such a sweeping continuum, fewer than half of those who experience the disorder will ever seek care and many who do are misdiagnosed. But letting a deep sadness go unchecked or under treated can do more than derail work and relationships: Recent findings suggest that depression may cause crucial brain structures to shrink and may increase the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's, and cancer. That's why it's critical to understand and recognize depression's signals, so you -- or someone you love -- can get the right help.
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