Women and Depression

Sep 19, 13 Women and Depression

For ten years, Gina suffered in silence with an illness that affects one in four women during the course of a lifetime. The illness affected her eating and sleeping habits, her ability to concentrate, her sense of self-worth, her sex drive and her ability to enjoy life. She felt tired all the time, and while she managed to keep up with her work duties, nothing was accomplished without tremendous effort. At times Gina’s illness was so severe, she felt like killing herself.

Gina was lucky. She decided to see her doctor about it, and he correctly diagnosed her with depression. Through a combination of medication and therapy, she has recovered. “I always thought there was something really wrong with me – that I wasn’t a good person. It was such a relief to me to understand that what I suffered from all those years was an illness, and one that could be treated,” said Gina.

Depression is by far the most common mental illness, and it is far more prevalent in women than in men. It is also rarely diagnosed and treated. According to American Psychological Association (APA) statistics, just one in five women who suffer from depression get the treatment they need. Most simply live with it, mask it with other symptoms such as alcoholism, overeating or perfectionism and carry with them a tremendous burden of guilt about their own lack of self-control or self-worth.

While there are many faces of depression, APA lists nine criteria that are the most common symptoms. If you have five or more of the following symptoms for two weeks or more, you fit the criteria for clinical depression, and should consult your doctor immediately. The symptoms include: depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day; markedly diminished interest in or pleasure in most activities; significant weight loss or gain; insomnia or excessive need for sleep; physical agitation or retardation; fatigue; feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt; diminished ability to concentrate or make decisions; and recurrent thoughts of death. Anxiety often accompanies depression as well.

There are many causes of depression, including loss or abandonment, sexual and physical abuse, genetic factors, poverty, infertility – even marriage and children. According to APA, mothers of small children are very vulnerable to depression, and the more children a woman has, the more likely she is to be depressed. A common denominator for most of these causes is a lack of control over one’s life. As women, we are often burdened with the weight of so many expectations from without and within: to be perfect partners, parents and career women, and to do it all with a smile on our faces.

What I have found in my counselling practice is that many women lose a sense of their true selves as they struggle to be everything for everyone else around them. While things are changing for women, there are still strong cultural messages to women that we must serve and support, that if we do things just for ourselves we are being selfish. Depression is a signal from our inner self that something is wrong, that we are neglecting ourselves in a fundamental way.

Judith Duerk says, in her book Circle of Stones: “Depression comes as a gift wrenching one fom the comfort of the collective to the isolation of one’s own feeling values, from the safety of the wide gate and broad way to the doubts and fears of one’s own umarked, rocky footpath… a gift: for hidden in the seeming safety of the broad way was stagnation and illness – death to the possibility of becoming oneself… Depression serves a woman as it presses down on her, forcing her to leave behind that which was not herself, which had influenced her to live a life alien to her own nature. Her suffering, now substantial, insists that she no longer deny its truth.”

As Duerk suggests, one way out of the depths of depression is to cast aside the expectations of the world and take the “unmarked, rocky path” to one’s true self. In therapy, this is often slow, painful but highly rewarding work. As part of the healing process, women will probably experience both grief and anger as they come to terms with compromises they have made in the past, and develop the strength to stop making them in the future.

Therapy is one way to help lift depression. Medication is another. Studies show that a combination of the two is the most effective. Anti-depressants should be taken with caution, and with the advice of a doctor or psychiatrist. They don’t work for everyone, and can have side effects, but they have also brought tremendous relief to people who suffer from depression.

There are also many things women can do for themselves. Aerobic exercise is a great, natural mood-lifter. Although it may be very difficult to put on those running shoes and head out the door when you’re feeling depressed, you will feel better having done it. Getting involved in group activities and social events, or keeping in touch with close friends may also help, although, again, you will have to overcome your own resistance. Depressed women tend to want to isolate themselves, often increasing their feelings of despair.

Gina has her own words of advice for women who are depressed. What she says helped her was to take the pressure off herself, to be kind to herself and let it be okay that she was not always performing up to her exacting standards for herself. She let herself really sink into her depression, absorb its message.

In the end, Gina says, depression was indeed a gift. She found that working through it enabled her to make important changes that have made her life truly her own. She says depression still threatens to visit her at times. She sees it as a warning sign to look within for areas of her life where she is not being true to herself, and to make the necessary, sometimes difficult, changes.

Gina’s story may not fit yours exactly — there are times in life when depression hits us even when we are leading the lives we want to be leading. Situational depression after the loss of a loved one or a major life trauma is normal. However, if your depression refuses to move on, pay attention to it. There are many things you can do about it, and in the process, you may find yourself making changes that more truly reflect the woman you are.

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