Depression: All in One’s Head?
THE MAN became depressed as soon as he began to restore his 200-year-old home. He slept badly and found sustained mental effort unusually difficult. His family wondered whether the house was haunted! He noticed that his worst symptoms, which included abdominal pain, followed periods spent removing old paint from interior woodwork. A doctor discovered that poisoning from the lead in the layers of old paint he was scraping caused his depression.
Yes, at times, even toxic materials are to blame for depression. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that depression can be triggered by a number of physical causes.
Several years ago researchers carefully examined 100 persons who were admitted to a city hospital with psychiatric problems, including depression. In 46 of these cases, the emotional symptoms were found to be directly related to physical illnesses. According to the report in the American Journal of Psychiatry, when these physical ills were treated, 28 “evidenced dramatic and rapid clearing of their psychiatric symptoms,” and 18 were “substantially improved.”
The role of physical illness in depression, however, is complex. The experience of many doctors is that a depressed patient may also have a physical illness that is not responsible for his depression but that becomes the focal point in his mind. Yet, the underlying depression often must be addressed and treated.
Though some physical illnesses can cause or intensify emotional disorders, psychiatric symptoms can also develop as a reaction to a previously existing illness. For instance, after major surgery, especially of the heart, recovering patients almost always get depressed. When they recover, the depression usually lifts. The strain on the body from a serious illness may also cause the disorder. In addition, an allergic reaction to certain foods or other substances can cause severe depression in some persons.
Heredity may also be a factor in whether one develops certain types of depression. Earlier this year, researchers announced the discovery of an inherited genetic defect that is believed to predispose some persons to manic depression.
Additionally, some medical experts say that from 10 to 20 percent of new mothers experience a full-blown clinical depression. Researchers do not agree, however, whether the hormonal changes associated with childbirth or the emotional strains of motherhood bring on the disorder. Recent findings also indicate that premenstrual syndrome and the taking of birth-control pills tend to cause depression in some women.
Current research has also revealed that some people appear to have seasonal mood cycles, referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Such ones feel very depressed during the fall and winter. They slow down and generally oversleep, withdraw from friends and family, and experience changes in appetite and food preference. But come spring and summer, they are elated, active, and energetic, and they generally function well. Some have been successfully treated with the regulated use of artificial lighting.
So depression is not always ‘in the head.’ Therefore, if a depressed mood lingers, having a complete medical examination is vital. But what if no physical reason can be found?
[Box on page 6]
Some Physical Causes of Depression
Medical research has associated the following things with the development of depression in some people:
Toxic metals and chemicals: lead, mercury, aluminum, carbon monoxide, and some insecticides
Nutrient deficiencies: certain vitamins and some essential minerals
Infectious diseases: tuberculosis, mononucleosis, viral pneumonia, hepatitis, and influenza
Endocrine-system diseases: thyroid disease, Cushing’s disease, hypoglycemia, and diabetes mellitus
Central-nervous-system diseases: multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease
“Recreational” drugs: PCP, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, and methadone
Prescription drugs: barbiturates, anticonvulsants, corticosteroids, and hormones. Some medications that treat high blood pressure, arthritis, cardiovascular problems, and some mental disorders
(Certainly, not all such medicines will cause depression, and even when there is a danger, it usually involves a small percentage of those who use the drug under the proper medical supervision.)