Some people who experience a single depressive episode will fully recover, never to experience another. (Sign us up for that, right?)
For about 40-60% of us, however, depression is a chronic illness that will come back. By the time most people get treatment, they have experienced multiple depressive episodes already.
Good news: with treatment, recurrences can be less severe, occur less frequently and not last as long.
So why does depression seem to rear its ugly head over and over again for most of us?
Saying you have depression is like saying you have a terrible headache, in that you have disabling symptoms, but it says nothing about the cause of those symptoms.
For instance, in the case of a headache, you may have a migraine, a tension headache, a stroke, a brain tumor, a concussion, or something else. The underlying cause informs the prognosis and treatment of your headache, whether it will come back and the best course of treatment.
With depression, we are just beginning to understand the underlying causes and contributors – which could be medical, neurological, psychological or social – many of which are ongoing and lead to a propensity for depressive episodes.
Depression has a genetic basis, but whether that’s because of biological differences in brain chemistry or temperament or something else, we don’t know yet.
We do know that people in stressful situations or lifestyles have more depressive episodes. This could be stress brought on by work, it could be relationship-related, a traumatic or neglectful childhood, or an unsafe living or work environment.
Recurrence can be caused by psychological makeup – much of which can be based in how we view ourselves, others and everyone’s place in the world. Studies have shown that psychotherapy can change this brain makeup to positively influence our outlook.
There’s still so much to learn about the disease. We need to recognize that for many, it’s a biopsychosocialspiritual illness with multiple contributing components that must all be addressed to create the highest likelihood for treatment to work.
Psychotherapy remains the most effective treatment for depression, and should be part of every patient’s plan for recovery.
Someone with chronic, disabling depression may also benefit from a comprehensive evaluation at a center that respects all contributors to the illness to treat the whole person in an individualized, comprehensive way. One place to do this is at The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt, which also specializes in treatment-resistant depression.
Depression is an intensely personal experience. When pursuing treatment, be sure that you are being understood, and obtaining the level of support you need. For some, particularly those working in a highly stressful environment, that could mean getting away for a short time to focus on recovery, even though it can be a tough decision to make. Be open to all levels of care.
It can be disheartening to realize that your depression will likely come back. Know that you’re not alone, as about 6.7% of the U.S. population have had at least one depressive episode in the past year.
Keep working on your recovery, talking about it to reduce stigma, and supporting those who are studying mental illness. One day, we will know more.
By Thomas Franklin, M.D., Medical Director, The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt
Dr. Thomas Franklin is the medical director of The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt. He is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a candidate at the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. He is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine and Psychiatry and has extensive experience in psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, and addictions and co-occurring disorders. Dr. Franklin previously served as medical director of Ruxton House, The Retreat’s transitional living program, before assuming the role of medical director of The Retreat in 2014.