Finding Depression

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Depression is a disease. It goes beyond simply being sad, or in a down mood—it is the result of chemical abnormalities in the brain. Sometimes people are born with these abnormalities, sometimes they come about due to another illness, or life experiences, and often, scientists believe it is a combination of these factors: people are born with a predisposition—which is sometimes genetic and sometimes not—to develop these abnormalities in response to events and circumstances.

Depression can be debilitating, even deadly. That’s why it’s important to identify it so appropriate treatment can be obtained. Symptoms of depression include the obvious sadness, lack of motivation, and changes in appetite—either an increase or lowered—but there can also be physical effects. Depressed people often experience otherwise inexplicable aches, and often fail to connect these to their mental state. Sleep problems are also common; as with appetite, this can take the form of insomnia or of sleeping too much. Depression might also bring anxiety, restlessness, and difficulty making decisions.

People who are exhibiting these or any other signs of depression, or who are undergoing stress but aren’t noticing symptoms, might benefit from getting screened for depression. In fact, more and more experts are recommending screening for all adults who have access to mental health care, whether or not they are showing any signs of depression. Mental illnesses in general, and depression in particular, are difficult to spot, both because they come on so gradually, and because they affect the area that notices symptoms, and screening people who thing they are health could have enormous public health benefits. Screenings are confidential and generally take less than an hour.

Now screening may be easier still. Researchers have developed a blood test that they say will help spot signs of depression as it starts to develop more easily than talk- and questionnaire-based screening techniques, and even spot people who are prone to depression before they experience it. The blood test looks for molecules in the blood that are characteristic of depression, can help differentiate types of depression, and may be able to help predict which course of treatment is likely to be most effective. Scientists say the test demonstrates that depression is an actual illness with a biochemical basis.

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