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Depression as a Very Frequent Problem. Definitions.

Is depression a serious illness?

A person’s lifetime experience with depression can vary from a single episode to multiple episodes with full recovery between bouts to chronic depression lasting for years. A person who has had one episode of depression has approximately a 50% chance of having a recurrence. The symptoms an individual experiences tend to be the same in multiple episodes so it is important to know what signs to be alert for so treatment can be started early if the illness relapses. Sometimes bouts of depression are superimposed on a chronic, mild depressive state termed dysthymia. Sometimes treatment helps not only the depression but also the dysthymic state and other times the depression is alleviated but the dysthymia persists.

How common is depression?

Depression is a very frequent problem. Seventeen percent of Americans will experience at least one depressive episode during their lifetime, and another 6% will suffer from dysthymia. Five percent of the population suffers from depression during any one month period of time. Bipolar illness is less frequent; only 1.6% of the population has manic-depressive illness. Women have depression almost twice as often as men. Depression occurs in all major ethnic groups. It is equally frequent in African Americans and Whites, but about 80% more frequent in Hispanic Americans.

What do the terms unipolar and bipolar mean?

Depression may be classified as unipolar or bipolar, and bipolar depressions are further divided into bipolar I and bipolar II. The distinction between unipolar and bipolar rests on whether a manic episode has ever been a feature of the illness. Manias are in many respects the opposite of depressions. Manic individuals are happy, excited, and tend to be expansive or frankly grandiose. Movements are quick, speech is fast and thoughts jump from idea to idea. If the episodes are severe enough to disrupt a person’s life they are termed manias and the illness is referred to as bipolar I disorder; if the episodes represent a clear behavior change but are not disruptive they are called hypomanias and the illness is referred to as bipolar II disorder. Yet another type of depression is dysthymia. It can be thought of as chronic, mild depression; individuals with dysthymia feel depressed most of the time but do not have enough depressive symptoms to be classified as having depressive illness.

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