With so much attention still focused on the pandemic and its consequences, it’s easy to forget that many millions of people are suffering from a different problem: depression. This often takes a huge toll on a person’s well-being, and that’s especially unfortunate because even severe cases can be treated.
The Mayo Clinic defines depression as a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. It affects how a person feels, thinks, and behaves, and in certain situations “can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems.”
At one time or another most of us have felt sad. An argument with a spouse, problems with a boss or co-workers, a child regularly misbehaving, or having problems in school are just a few of the situations that could trigger mild depression. Very often these difficulties resolve easily and are forgotten. But chas v’shalom if they aren’t, or if much more serious issues develop, the illness could become more serious.
Depression affects tens of millions of people in the US and is responsible for 99% of all “mind-brain” illnesses. It strikes people of all races, backgrounds, genders, income brackets, and ages. “It is an extremely complex disease,” writes WebMD. “No one knows exactly what causes it but it can occur for a variety of reasons.”
Norman (name changed) has been battling this problem since he was a young child. A professional well-known in his community, he describes suffering from feelings of “hopelessness, constant tiredness, challenges at work,” and “desperately hoping for a solution.”
In addition to the emotional pain, depressed people feel their spouses, children, relatives, and close friends suffer along with them.
The illness takes an enormous toll in other areas too. Consider these statistics.
Depression in the US:
*affects over 18 million adults in any one given year;
*is the leading cause of disability in people aged 15-44;
*is the primary cause of suicide – more than 41,000 each year; and
*causes over 500 million lost work days each year at a cost of more than $23 billion.
Nearly 7% of full-time employees experienced major depression within the past year according to one estimate, and the total financial cost exceeds $210 billion per year.
The cost of depression is high even when it is treated. The number of people taking anti-depressants is surging. According to NBC News, one in six Americans takes some kind of psychiatric drugs — mostly antidepressants.
An analysis by The New York Times in 2018 found that almost 25 million depressed adults had taken antidepressants for at least 2 years, a 60% increase since 2010. Moreover, approximately 15.5 million people had taken these drugs for at least 5 years, nearly double the rate it was in 2010. The Wall Street Journal reports that prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications and sleep aids have risen sharply as a result of the pandemic.
And it’s not only adults that are affected; children also suffer from depression, and sometimes to such a degree that they also require medication. In fact, children as young as six are taking these medications. The CDC reports that nearly two million children between 6-11 suffer from depression, and more than six million between ages 12-17 do also. Moreover, the numbers of children suffering from anxiety and behavioral disorders are still higher.
The Pandemic And The Blues
Quarantines and lockdowns are exacerbating the problem. Isolation, the stress of lost jobs, and the fear of contracting the virus are among the issues worsening people’s feelings of well-being. More than one-third of Americans say the pandemic is having a “serious impact” on their mental health, according to a survey released March 25 by the American Psychiatric Association.
Even children are stressed by these things. 46% of parents with children under 18 rated their average stress level from the pandemic as 8 or higher on a 10-point scale, according to the American Psychological Association. Experts warn that a second lockdown would deepen their suffering.
This helps explain why prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications in the US in May rose 10.2% from the same time a year earlier. At the same time, prescriptions for antidepressants rose 9.2%.
The Best Medicine
Norman, the professional who suffered from this illness most of his life, found that openly discussing this problem in a group made him feel better. Even more helpful was learning to laugh at life and himself.
Rabbi S. (name changed) spends a great deal of time giving chizuk to people suffering from serious health and emotional problems, and he has came to the same conclusion. One frum patient he regularly visited became so depressed that he lost interest in wearing tefilin.
Rabbi S, had an idea. “This is such an important mitzvah that even people who never put on tefilin before have started wearing them,” he said.
“Yeah, like who?” the patient asked.
Rabbi S. was prepared for that question and showed him photos he downloaded of Superman, Batman, and Popeye wearing tefilin. The patient laughed heartily when he saw them and that proved to be a turning point in both his physical and emotional recovery.
There are certain measures that may help mitigate depression or even prevent it from setting in. For example, exercise stimulates the body to release chemicals in the brain called endorphins and doctors say these help people feel good. Other people avoid eating sugary and other sweet foods since those could affect their moods. Norman adds that a stress reduction plan, meaningful friendships, and a good night’s sleep are also helpful.
It’s important to report even mild depression to a doctor, and how much more true this is about severe depression.
Despite all the gloomy statistics, there’s is some good news to bear in mind. Depression, even when severe, can be treated. For the growing numbers of adults and children affected by this illness, that’s something to smile about.