Five facts about depression and mood disorders

Depression and mood disorders are highly stigmatized, almost to the point where those affected don't seek help.

They should. An estimated 16 million American adults — almost seven percent of the population — had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.

Having the right information is necessary to erasing this misunderstanding. Here are five things you should know about depression and mood disorders.

1. It's common

Major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the US, affecting more than three million people each year. It most commonly starts in adolescence or young adulthood and is slightly more common in women than men. While there are no known definitive triggers for the onset of depression, we do know that there is a significant genetic component and that environment (home life, relationships with others, stress levels, etc.) can also be a contributing factor.

2. It's treatable

Some people do not seek out treatment because they don’t realize that depression is very treatable. Others wonder if they should be able to manage the symptoms on their own. Both of those suppositions are incorrect. Depression and other mood disorders are not a question of willpower. Like any disease, it requires intervention and treatment. Help is available and works.

3. Waiting hurts

Some people wait many years before getting help due to the societal stigma surrounding mental illness, seeing a psychiatrist or being on medicine. They feel they should be "strong enough" to overcome it. Both men and women are equally affected by stigma but they can be affected differently. For example, some men may put off treatment because they feel it is a sign of weakness or be uncomfortable communicating their emotions. It’s important to remember that depression is not a sign of failure; it is an illness. It takes a lot of courage to overcome the stigma and seek help.

4. Waiting hurts (part two)

In general, the earlier we treat, the better the outcomes. The longer an individual with depression stays untreated, the harder it becomes to treat. I said it before but it bears repeating: depression is an illness. We have treatments that work. Like any illness, the longer you wait to treat it, the more the illness spreads. It is analogous to cancer in that if you have a malignancy — you want to treat it and stop it in its tracks before it takes over and affects other parts of the body. Mood disorders are like that. They are malignant in that they impact your life: relationships with family, friends, coworkers and the way you view yourself. It can result in dropping out of school, quitting a job, withdrawal from the people you love and things you like to do. It gets in the way of you accomplishing goals you set for yourself and your life.

5. Symptoms differ

The symptoms or signs of depression can manifest differently (the same way heart attack symptoms are different in men and women), often depending on one’s sex and age. For example, younger people may seem more irritable whereas adults can appear to be in a serious down mood that is all-encompassing for a prolonged period. Both may experience a change in sleep habits (sleeping far more or less than they ‘normally’ do can both be indicators). In either case, professional help to assess what may be the cause for the change is warranted.

Michael Birnbaum, MD, is director of the Early Treatment Program of Psychiatry at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and an assistant professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.