Depression & Women – Optimize Your Mental Health

Depressed woman in bed with curtains shut

October highlights many days specifically geared toward raising mental health awareness and eliminating stigma often associated with mental illnesses, particularly depression, the most common mental affliction that is spreading in alarming proportions due to the current worldwide pandemic.

Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 4 through 10), National Depression Screening Day (October 8) and World Mental Health Day (October 10) provide us many awareness opportunities to reflect on the state of our mental health, discover ways to nurture and optimize it and understand the importance good mental health plays in our overall physical health and well-being.

Your Capital Women’s Care team offers you important information about women and their susceptibility to depression, a mental health illness expected to afflict 1 in every 8 women during their lifetime. Depression is two times more prevalent in women than men. Depression has no boundaries – it can potentially afflict any woman, regardless of race, ethnic background or socioeconomic level.

What’s more, clinical depression is experienced by approximately 12 million U.S. women each year, occurring most frequently in women ages 25 through 44. About 17 million people in the U.S. experience depression, or 7% of the national population, each year.

While depression is the most common mental affliction, only 50% of those with clinical depression symptoms seek out professional care and treatment.

Your Capital Women’s Care team shares the signs and symptoms of clinical depression, its various causes and effects and available treatment options to empower you with knowledge so you can monitor and check in on your own mental health and know when to seek professional help and treatment.

What Is Depression?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), depressive disorder, frequently referred to as depression, is more than just feeling sadness or going through a hard time. It’s a serious mental health condition requiring understanding and professional treatment.

Left untreated, depression can be devastating for those experiencing it and their loved ones.

While some may only experience a single depressive episode within their lifetimes, the majority face recurring episodes. Without treatment, episodes can last from a few months to several years.

Through early detection, successful diagnosis and implementation of a personalized treatment plan incorporating medication, psychotherapy and healthy lifestyle choices, many people can overcome depression and realize good mental health.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression can show through different symptoms per individual. But for most, depression changes day-to-day functioning, typically for periods of 2-plus weeks or longer. Common symptoms include:

  • sleep disturbances
  • appetite changes (weight loss or gain)
  • lacking concentration and/or decision-making capabilities
  • lacking energy and/or activity
  • lacking social interaction with family and friends
  • lacking interest or feeling pleasure in previously enjoyed activities
  • experiencing feelings of hopelessness, extreme sadness low self-worth or guilty thoughts
  • crying for no known cause or reason
  • feeling slowed down or agitated
  • experiencing physical aches and pains
  • having self-harming or suicidal thoughts

To be diagnosed with depression, a depressive episode lasts longer than two weeks and consists of (but is not limited to) any combination of the above noted symptoms.

Causes of Depression

Depression doesn’t have a single cause. It can be triggered through life crisis, physical illness or other triggers. It can also occur immediately. Scientists relate several factors contributing to its onset:

  • Trauma. Trauma experienced early in life can cause long-term changes in the brain’s response to fear and stress which may lead to depression.
  • Genetics. Mood disorders tend to run in families.
  • Life circumstances. Marital status, relationship changes, financial standing and where one lives all can influence depression onset.
  • Brain changes. Imaging studies indicate the brain’s frontal lobe becomes less active during depressive episodes. Depression is also associated with changes in how the pituitary gland and hypothalamus respond to hormone stimulation.
  • Other medical conditions. Those experiencing sleep disturbances, medical illness, chronic pain, anxiety and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to develop depression. Some medical syndromes such as hypothyroidism can imitate depression. Some medications can also cause depression symptoms.
  • Drug and alcohol misuse. Around 20% of adults having a diagnosed substance abuse disorder also experienced a major depressive episode in 2018. Co-occurring disorders require coordinated treatment for both conditions, as alcohol misuse can worsen symptoms of depression.

Women and Depression

There are specific types of depression that can occur at various stages of a woman’s life. These types of depression unique to women are associated with the dramatic physical and hormonal changes happening in conjunction with onset and recurrence of monthly menstrual cycles, pregnancy, postpartum period and perimenopause.

Puberty -- Hormone changes during puberty may increase some girls' risk of developing depression. However, temporary mood swings related to fluctuating hormones during puberty are normal; these changes alone don't cause depression.

Puberty is often associated with other experiences that can play a role in depression like:

  • emerging sexuality and identity issues
  • conflict with parents
  • and/or increasing pressure for achievement in school, sports or other life areas.

After puberty, depression rates are higher in females than males. Because girls typically reach puberty before boys, girls are more likely to develop depression at an earlier age than boys. Evidence suggests this depression gender gap may continue into adulthood.

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) -- Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, refers to moodiness and irritability before menstruation. It is quite common with usually mild symptoms.

But there is a less common, more severe form of PMS called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). PMDD is a serious condition having disabling symptoms such as irritability, anger, depressed mood, sadness, suicidal thoughts, appetite changes, bloating, breast tenderness and joint or muscle pain.

Perinatal Depression –- Pregnancy can be difficult, as pregnant women endure morning sickness, weight gain and mood swings. Newborn care is also challenging.  Many new mothers experience mild mood changes and feelings of worry, unhappiness and exhaustion that many women sometimes experience during the initial two weeks after birth. These feelings usually last a week or two and then go away.

Perinatal depression is a mood disorder that can affect women during pregnancy and after childbirth and is much more serious. Perinatal depression includes depression that begins during pregnancy (called prenatal depression) and depression that begins once baby is born (called postpartum depression).

Mothers with perinatal depression experience feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety and fatigue that may make it difficult to carry out daily tasks, including caring for themselves, their new child or others.

If you think you are experiencing perinatal depression, talk with your health care provider or trained mental health care professional. If you notice any signs of depression in a loved one during her pregnancy or after her baby is born, encourage her to see a health care provider or visit a clinic.

Perimenopausal Depression –- Perimenopause is the transition into menopause that is a normal phase in a woman’s life which can sometimes be challenging. If you are going through perimenopause, you may experience abnormal periods, problems sleeping, mood swings and hot flashes. Although these symptoms are common, feeling depressed is not. If you are struggling with irritability, anxiety, sadness, or loss of enjoyment at the time of menopause transition, you may be experiencing perimenopausal depression. Speak with your health care professional to implement a treatment plan tailored to meet your specific needs.

It’s important to note depression affects each woman differently and there is no “one size fits all” treatment. Not every woman who faces depression experiences every symptom. Some women experience only a few symptoms while others have many. The severity and frequency of symptoms and how long they last vary depending on both the individual and illness severity.

Treatments for Depression

Although depressive disorder can be a devastating illness, it often responds to treatment. The key is to get a specific evaluation and treatment plan. Safety planning is important for those having self-harming or suicidal thoughts. After an assessment rules out medical and other possible causes, a patient-centered treatment plan is developed. It can include any or a combination of the following:

  • Psychotherapy including cognitive behavioral therapy, family-focused therapy, interpersonal therapy and psychoeducation.
  • Medications including antidepressants, mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medications.
  • Exercise can help with prevention and mild-to-moderate symptoms, as exercise induces “feel good” endorphin release within the brain.
  • Brain stimulation therapies can be tried if psychotherapy and/or medication aren’t effective. These include electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depressive disorder with psychosis or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) for severe depression.
  • Light therapy uses a light box to expose a person to full spectrum light to regulate the hormone melatonin.
  • Alternative approaches including acupuncture, meditation, faith and nutrition can be part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

If you have or think you might have depression or another mental health condition, realize you aren’t alone.

Mental health conditions are far more common than you may think:

  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year
  • 1 in 25 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year
  • 1 in 6 U.S. youth ages 6 to 17 experience a mental health disorder each year
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% of these illnesses by age 24

Lessening Impact of Depression

There are many things you can do to lessen the impact of depression within your life:

  • Find balance. Make time for yourself and loved ones beyond work. Prioritize a break from work and everyday life. Take a restful vacation, weekend getaway or day trip to refresh and recharge. Enjoy time with your family and friends.
  • Ask for help. Discover ways to delegate responsibilities. Have kids help with chores – even young ones can help with simple jobs around the house or yard. Have your spouse or significant other pitch in with laundry, dinner or grocery shopping. Let family members or friends know you’d appreciate help carpooling the kids to afterschool sports. If you can afford to pay for cleaning or lawn services, consider doing so to lighten your responsibilities.
  • Practice self-care. Saying “no” to responsibilities and social outings can help free up important time to take care of yourself. Build in time to reboot yourself, whether for five minutes or an hour daily to meditate, take a walk, head to the gym, take a bubble bath and read or a doing a hobby you enjoy. Increase feelings of well-being by listening to music, enjoying your garden, or making a favorite craft.
  • Prioritize a healthy lifestyle. Eat a healthy diet rich in whole foods, low in saturated fats, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and lean proteins like chicken and fish. Minimize fried foods and sweets, which can exacerbate feelings of depression. Combine a healthy diet with plenty of exercise, including cardio and weight-training activities like biking, walking, yoga, kickboxing, dance and swimming, among others. Engage your family or a close friend as fitness partners to enjoy healthy time socializing together.
  • Get good sleep. While it may be last on your list, make it a priority to get a good night’s sleep, roughly 7 to 8 hours nightly. Your body and mind need quality sleep to rest, reboot and recharge. Establish consistent sleep rituals to tune your body into winding down. Avoid screen and phone time 1 hour prior to bedtime.
  • Socialize with others and avoid isolation. Having friends and socializing with others helps to keep loneliness and depression at bay. Join a club or volunteer with a local organization you feel passionate about. Those who mingle with others are less likely to experience loneliness and isolation which often leads to feelings of depression.
  • Seek professional help. Mental health disorders are time-related, so feeling symptoms of depression, such as stress, body aches, insomnia, irritability and hopelessness for more than 10 days may indicate a need to see a mental health professional.

Importance of Good Mental Health

Mental and physical health are equally important components of your overall health.  Mental illness, especially depression, increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly chronic conditions like:

  • stroke
  • type 2 diabetes
  • cancer
  • and heart disease.

Similarly, the presence of existing chronic conditions can increase risk for developing mental illness.

What’s more, sound mental health increases your enjoyment of your relationships with family, friends and loved ones, which contributes to your overall personal well-being as well as offering positive influence on your physical health.

How to Get or Offer Help

If you or someone you know or love is experiencing depressive symptoms, there are several ways to initiate help:

  • Call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The deaf and hard of hearing can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4889. All calls are confidential.
  • Contact the Crisis Text Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by texting HELLO to 741741.
  • If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and want to check symptoms of depression, this online mental health screen can help identify if you or a loved one is suffering from depression.
  • The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) website offers complete information about other mental health conditions.

Your local Capital Women’s Care team is here for you should you have questions or concerns relating to your personal mental health or that of someone you love. We’re here for you and your family to ensure you have and enjoy optimal physical and emotional health throughout your lifetime.

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