Depression: Part 1

by Vishal Lama


As part of a series on mental illness, to which I wrote a preface of sorts, earlier, the next few posts will be on the subject of depression (a kind of mood disorder) that affects a significant minority of math students. I shall, later, broach other forms of mental illness, but, for now, depression, which arguably is a more prevalent form of mental illness, will be the focus of this series. I know a few math academics who have had to deal with depression, mild or severe, at some point in their lives, and I hope to bring out their stories to a wider audience (while maintaining their anonymity, of course) and talk about how they dealt with their illness and the ensuing struggles, in the hope that others will benefit from such personal accounts.

Sometimes, precious lives are lost to such illness. At the beginning of this year, one came to know of the sad and untimely demise of Dr Andrew Lange, who had been the chairman of the division of physics, mathematics and astronomy at CalTech. Suicide happens to be “the second leading cause of death among college students.”

This post will be an introduction of sorts to depression, with other posts emphasizing more on therapy and prevention.

Depression and Its Symptoms

What is depression? Loosely speaking, it is a form of mood disorder that’s characterized by feelings of sadness. Almost everyone experiences such feelings on a daily basis, and they usually last for a “brief” time (from a few hours, perhaps, to a few days). “Depression” is, therefore, a quite common phenomenon. It is only when depression takes certain serious forms that it tends to debilitate a person’s mental functioning or capacity. According to mediLexicon, depression is “a mental state or chronic mental disorder characterized by feelings of sadness, loneliness, despair, low self-esteem, and self-reproach; accompanying signs include psycho-motor retardation (or less frequently agitation), withdrawal from social contact, and vegetative states such as loss of appetite and insomnia.” The National Institute of Mental Health lists some of the following symptoms exhibited by people experiencing depression (though it should be kept in mind that during a particular bout of depression, it is not necessary that  all the symptoms be experienced):

  • Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early–morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment

Depressive Disorders (or Forms of Depression)

There are several forms of depression. They are major depressive disorder (major depression), dysthymic disorder (dysthymia), atypical depression, postpartum depression (postnatal depression) and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness) is considered in a separate category. More information on the aforesaid forms of depression may be found here.

Causes of Depression

There is no single known cause of depression. It is likely a result arising from a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental and psychological factors. In fact, one of the obstacles to treating depression arises from the fact that quite often a depressed person tries to locate the source or cause of depression in some environmental or psychological event/factor that may or may not have triggered the depression, in the hope that rectifying or fixing such a “source/cause” may result in “eliminating” the depression. Such an innocuous view creates all kinds of obstacles during therapy.

(More to follow soon in Part 2)

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