During my junior year of college, I took a popular psychology class that focused on personality traits. Although we learned about a variety of characteristics, my professor was most passionate about depression.
On that subject, his opinion was very clear: He believed that depression could be cured by consistent exposure to sunlight, a good amount of sleep, a healthy diet and regular exercise. Antidepressant medications were nothing more than placebo pills.
At first, I tried to understand his reasoning. Then I started to take offense. Then, as I looked around at my 300 classmates, I got downright mad. Who is this professor to say that people — impressionable, young people! — should not take antidepressant medications?
I generally trust and respect my professors. But, in this case, I thought he was out of line and incorrect: I know firsthand that daily workouts, healthy eating, sleep, etc. isn’t always enough to overcome serious depression.
That’s why I take a low dose of an antidepressant medication.
Researchers believe that depression has two contributing factors: genetic predisposition and external factors. Beyond that, I have no real right to get into the deep science of it. (If you are interested, there are plenty of legitimate online sources that can explain depression. I would suggest starting with WebMD’s Depression Health Center for some basics.)
What I do have a right to discuss is how depression actually feels.
Certain people in my family have struggled with depression throughout their lives. For that reason, my parents have always been very supportive of doing what it takes to deal with disorder — whether that is seeing a therapist or taking necessary medication.
I have always been grateful this wasn’t a taboo subject in our house. But, I became even more grateful during college when I simultaneously struggled with an eating disorder and mourned my cousin’s sudden death. My parents were among the first to suggest that I meet with a counselor.
After talking with a nutritionist and a psychologist, I began to recover from my eating disorder. I was moving in the right direction…
Still, a deep, heavy depression kept me from feeling like myself.
Everything else in my life was good: I was working out, eating better than I had in years, getting a good amount of sleep… Basically, I was following my (future) professor’s advice to a T.
After in-depth conversations with my doctor and therapist, I began a low-dose antidepressant. It was like the final piece of the puzzle.
In the two+ years since then, my doctors and I have lowered my dosage. On one occasion, I foolishly tried to go off the medication. It only took a few days of undue sadness for me to realize that was a mistake. Now, I am at a good, low level of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).
I also continue exercising, eating well, getting a good amount of sleep and soaking in some sunshine. I think this complements the medication — I’d even say that it allows me to take a lower dosage than I otherwise would.
Although I don’t agree with my professor’s opinion that healthy living the panacea, I also don’t agree with a recent study that said exercise doesn’t have any discernible benefits for depressed patients. I guess that puts me somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: Neither healthy living nor medication are enough on their own to fix depression.
Dan, who is in his final year of pharmacy school, put it well: “Vitamin C can help mitigate the symptoms of a cold, but it won’t get to the root causes. Exercise can help relieve some levels of depression — but it shouldn’t be expected to cure it.”
That’s why the vast majority of medical experts will tell you that depression isn’t just in the mind.
“Since the 1950s, with the advent of the first generation of antidepressants, it has been apparent that depression is a biological disorder,” said Robert Sapolosky in the academic article Depression, Antidepressants and the Shrinking Hippocampus.
That’s where medications (and counseling) should come in.
According to recent research from the National Center for Health Statistics, 1-in-10 American adults take an antidepressant. Maybe this number is high. Maybe not… If people such as my professor keep stigmatizing the medications, then others who really need help won’t get it.
And that’s just wrong.