Delving into depression

It’s hard to explain.

You’re losing energy, you can’t concentrate, you just don’t feel like hanging out with your friends and you’re never hungry. Could these be the effects of college life?

These symptoms are commonly associated with college but can also describe depression.

Depression is one of the most common, most complex and least understood mental illnesses. In fact, many people do not understand the causes and effects of depression and mislabel it.  

“It’s an illness. It’s an illness just like diabetes and hypertension is an illness,” Lisa Barresi, associate director of Health, Counseling and Student Wellness, said.

While depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, its causes can be very individualized. It can be caused by genetics, brain chemistry, social situations and physical stressors, depending on the person.

“How people interpret events and experiences has everything to do with how they feel and the emotions they experience. That’s the part psychologists work on,” Rachael Clark, professor in psychological sciences, said.

Mark Bardgett, a professor in psychological science, said psychologists and neuroscientists look at three different influences on a person to determine which one(s) could be triggering depression.

“They will say ‘what are your genetic risks, what are your neurochemical changes and how are they impacted by your environment?” Bardgett added, “There’s not one single change in the brain that we look at… we understand now that there are a lot of pathways to depression, and a lot of those pathways intersect.”

According to Barresi, depression is unique to the person.

“It’s such an illness that really varies from person to person. It really depends on what the symptoms are, how long they are for and how deeply it affects them,” she said.


The brain chemistry of depression:

Depression can be triggered by many different things, but its effects on the brain are mostly uniform.

“The brain doesn’t just kind of exist on its own,” said Bardgett, adding that neuroscientists look at stressors such as abuse, trauma or a person’s environment to determine what is affecting the chemical changes in their brain.

According to Bardgett, the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain are affected by the levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter.

“Changes in serotonin is a chemical change that can result in depression,” he said.

Clark elaborated, saying, “The brain doesn’t have enough serotonin. And that’s what the antidepressants do; they block serotonin from leaving the brain so there’s more in the brain to stimulate a positive mood,”


Sadness and depression:

If there’s one thing people know about depression, it’s the intense sadness it triggers.

Sam Lapin, an NKU instructor for Educational Outreach in the field of Communications, has lived with depression for most of his life. Since he was 19 years old, Lapin has struggled with the emotions depression has caused for him.

“I cry in the same way that I sneeze and I burp. It’s just something that happens,” Lapin said. “Now and again you need to sneeze, and now and again I just, for no reason whatsoever that I can tell, I cry.”

Lapin said his depression also affects his personality.

“I become very withdrawn, whereas normally I’m a very outgoing person. I become completely withdrawn and don’t want to talk to anybody, even my own family,” Lapin said.

Bardgett equated the sadness of depression with wearing a pair of blue glasses.

“Once you get depression you start painting your world kind of blue. And you start processing everything with those kind of blue lenses on…everything you think about gets painted a certain way and everything you learn about gets painted a certain way. The longer that goes on, the more intense the blue’s going to get, so you want to stop that as soon as possible,” Bardgett said.


Other symptoms:

While the most well-known symptom of depression is intense sadness, depression shows itself in a variety of symptoms, both physical and emotional. Those suffering from depression can experience a loss of pleasure in things they used to enjoy doing and have a hard time finding the motivation to perform even the simplest tasks.

“[It’s] also notable that the symptoms really get in the way of day-to-day functioning. It’s hard for them to even summon the energy to get dressed or take a shower; that takes all their energy for the day,” Barresi said .

Heather Owens, senior double-major in Spanish and English, struggles with depression that’s caused by anxiety. During a low point of her depression, Owens said she could no longer enjoy any of the activities she used to have fun doing.

“It sucks cause that draws you deeper into the hole cause then you don’t have anything that you enjoy anymore cause you can’t do anything,” Owens said. “And so you’re just sad all the time. There’s nothing you can do to make yourself happy.”

Depression can also cause a person to have irregular sleep patterns, either making them sleep much more than normal or causing them to get very little sleep. For Owens, a dark period came for her last fall when she had many responsibilities but couldn’t find the energy to complete them.

“I’m pretty sure I slept away most of my fall semester last year,” Owens said. “It got to the point where I was making promises and just the thought of going through with them was miserable.”

Lapin said he tends to sleep long amounts of time during his harsh episodes of depression.

“I sleep an enormous amount of time; I may sleep 15 hours a day,” he said. “Being depressed is extremely exhausting.”

Other symptoms of depression include significant weight loss or weight gain, increased agitation or slowing down physically, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, an inability to make decisions and repeated thoughts of death.


Misconceptions about depression:

Perhaps because depression deeply affects a person’s emotions, those around them can often misinterpret symptoms of depression as either laziness or the blues. This can feed existing misconceptions about depression many people believe.

“There are a lot of myths that revolve around depression, probably more so than any other illness, mental or physical,” Clark said.

Owens said when her depression was at its worst she struggled to fulfill promises she had made. “I think a lot of people thought I was just getting lazy,” she said, adding that she was unable to communicate that she was struggling with depression. “It’s really difficult to describe that.”

A common belief is that those with depression are experiencing a temporary feeling of “the blues.” While reactive depression can come and go with stressful situations, most people with depression aren’t able to snap out of their negative emotions.

“[There’s a] stigma that you can just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and snap out of it,” Barresi said.

Bardgett said there is a change in the brain that affects the functionality of an individual with depression.

“It’s [not] just ‘Oh, this person is malingering,’ ‘if this person would just try harder,” he said. “There’s a real biological basis for why a person can’t get out of bed, can’t go to work, can’t interact with others. And it’s important to think about it that way so we can come up with better treatments and a better understanding of depression.”

Clark said people think depression is something that can be fully controlled and managed.

“Like depression is completely within someone’s control, like ‘Just get happy,’” Clark said.

Depression is non-discriminatory when it comes to success and quality of life.

“One of the worst things you can say is ‘you have so much going for you, how can you be depressed?’” Lapin said. “It doesn’t matter if you have everything or nothing.”

According to Clark people many times associate success with happiness.

“[They believe that] if you have all of these great things in your life, you shouldn’t feel depressed,” she said. “That all has nothing to do with depression. No one would choose to feel depressed if they didn’t have to.”

Reaching out:

Because depression can isolate individuals from others, it’s important for friends and loved ones to reach out. Barresi says this is especially important because people with depression may not have the energy, confidence or motivation to ask for help.

“Talk about what you’ve noticed in them that concerns you, taking their depression seriously, not thinking ‘Oh, you’ll be fine tomorrow,’”  Barresi said.  

Barresi said it’s important that those suffering from depression have friends to talk to.

“Just to be there for them. Be a compassionate listener,” she advised. “Sometimes we can want to give advice to people and we can get the tendency to want to fix [things], but sometimes I think it’s more important to just be a listener.”

Owens said talking with friends can be a good way to battle the negative thoughts depression causes.

“A lot of times when you’re with depression there is that hopelessness and that ‘I’m not good enough,’ ‘I’m feeling this because I’m weird, I should be able to fix this,’ ‘What’s wrong with me?’,” Owens said. “But when you talk with other people and they’re like ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re a wonderful person, we just want you to feel better,’ then it kind of helps because you’re like… ‘there are all these people who care about me and want me to be okay.’”

Seeking treatment:

Bardgett said that because depression is individualized, there’s not one singular treatment for it.

“Depression’s the same way, there are lots of different roads to it, and we have to figure out all those different roads before we can treat it,” Bardgett said.

According to Bardgett, the first step to treating depression is recognizing it. “The faster you can get into treatment, the better the prognosis, without a doubt,” he said.

The most effective treatment for depression to date is the combination of antidepressants and therapy, said Clark.

“Depression is highly treatable,” she said. “It is very responsive to therapy combined with antidepressants.”

Baressi has been counseling with students for over a decade and says she has seen many students improve.

“I’ve seen countless numbers of students over the years… they’ve really gotten better and felt better,” Baressi said. “It doesn’t mean that their depression totally goes away but that they’ve found more ways to manage it… it’s heartening to me.”

Lapin says counseling has helped him in the past, simply by having a conversation. He said, “Oftentimes it is just the moment of being able to talk about something that you haven’t put in words before.”

Owens has also benefited from meeting with a counselor and sees the difference antidepressants have on her anxiety.

“It brought me to a point where I can recognize my emotions without being overwhelmed by them,” Owens said. “Now when things happen… I can logically think through the real-life ramifications of it.”

Clark said that not only can a person manage their depression, they can improve it.

“Just because you have an illness, doesn’t mean that you can’t get better,” Clark said.