David Rakofsky, PsyD

This is the first in a 3-part series for those facing depression and hoping for help. It may also be a beneficial read for those who have loved ones showing signs of depression. Previously, we discussed how to respond to episodes of sadness, but depression is different, as it is a clinical issue.

Let’s start from the beginning. How do you know if you are depressed? The most common symptoms of depression are: insomnia, difficulty concentrating, trouble remembering things and making decisions, loss of appetite or overeating, losing interest in things you used to enjoy, lingering feelings of sadness, and even thoughts of suicide. If you do have serious and persistent thoughts of suicide, please don’t wait to seek professional help. Instead, immediately head to the emergency room and be open with them about what you’re experiencing.

Another typical symptom of depression is isolating yourself from others, like friends and family. While this separation may feel comforting in the moment, a pattern of pulling away and avoidance can trigger shame that is sure to deepen your feelings of despair and loneliness. It also may lead you to miss out on activities you normally enjoy.

Although men can definitely experience depression, it is twice as common for women to suffer from the disease. This can perhaps be explained by the hormonal changes women experience, such as premenstrual shifts that can occur with each monthly cycle; the hormonal changes that occur with pregnancy; postpartum depression following a birth; perimenopause and menopause. Of these, postpartum depression is the most common and can be the most severe, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In fact, postpartum depression can even cause you to doubt your ability to care for your baby, and in extreme cases can lead to obsessive and intrusive thoughts about hurting yourself or your newborn.

Sometimes, depression can be caused by other underlying physical disorders. For this reason, if you have not been previously diagnosed with major depression by a medical or mental health professional, see your doctor to make sure your new and troubling mood isn’t better accounted for by some other, medically-based abnormality. It is very important to not self-diagnose your depression.

If your doctor offers you only medication or a referral to a psychiatrist or other medicating specialist, ask for some names of therapists who they already trust; depending on your severity, it may behoove you to consider counseling as an initial treatment before transitioning to medications. Talking to someone who is professionally trained to help with depression is a critical part of the process to manage your symptoms. Finding the right therapist is key. You can obtain an online list of names from your health insurance provider if it helps to narrow your search. Look for a therapist that specializes in helping people suffering from depression, and make time in your schedule to see your therapist at least weekly until symptoms improve significantly. Consistency is important when working with a professional, so make sure you feel comfortable with your therapist. It’s OK to meet with a few therapists until you find the one that feels right for you.

After you have a few sessions with your chosen therapist, he or she may conclude that medication, along with continued therapy, may be beneficial for you. If so, your therapist may refer you to a psychiatrist or nurse practitioner, medically trained and licensed professionals who carefully manage medications until the right combination is found. In some cases, you may even be able to visit your regular doctor for the right medication. But remember that medication alone typically isn’t enough. It is important to continue your work with a therapist.

Treating depression is a process, often one that takes time. Allow yourself that time. It’s easy to be spoiled by the fast therapeutic effect experienced during the first few therapy sessions. You may feel hope begin to be restored fairly soon, actually. This is when many people make the mistake of stopping their therapy sessions. However, it is vital to continue meeting with your therapist, because much of the change people feel is due to a virtual re-wiring within the brain, and these neurological processes are not instantly set. Seeds will be planted that take time to bear fruit over the course of your treatment. Fighting depression will have its ups and downs. Having a professional team working to help you will only make things easier for you. If you don’t have adequate support at home, you may want to find a local support group to keep you focused on healing. Your therapist can help with this search, too.

Remember that you are not alone. Depression is a common mental illness. In fact, according to Mental Health America, depression affects more than 16 million Americans each year. It also has no bias; depression can befall anyone, regardless of age, gender or race. But if you seek help, depression can be battled successfully, thanks to a combination of therapy and other behavioral health regimens.

Dr. David Rakofsky is a Chicago-based clinical psychologist and the founder of Wellington Counseling Group in Chicago and the northern suburbs.