Loneliness is a very powerful trigger. It can trigger stress and it can trigger depression, or a depressive episode. All of these reactions, when drawn out, come with negative health consequences. For clinicians addressing these problems, it can be difficult to untangle the influence of one on the other.
Putting loneliness aside for a moment and looking at the bigger picture, what is clear is that more Americans than ever before are stressed, depressed and anxiety-ridden. Though the word stress was coined only more than 50 years ago, it still lacks a definition that everyone agrees upon. According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 8.3 million American adults suffer from serious psychological distress. This equates to approximately 3.4 percent of the U.S. population. Serious psychological distress is an umbrella term for a condition that runs from general hopelessness and nervousness all the way up to diagnosable conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Stress is part of life. It is not necessarily a bad thing. It can play an important function in motivating people to be alert, energetic and focused. This is especially true in times of trouble. Yet when we let stress become a constant presence, it can wreak havoc on our bodies. It can weaken the immune system and increase inflammation, both of which can raise your risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. Chronic stress also can lead to other issues that indirectly affect heart health, like higher blood pressure. It can lead to diabetes. Stress also tends to increase over a lifetime. Chronic stress can have a silent, yet dangerous, impact on health.
According to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the more a person suffered in childhood — things like physical, emotional or sexual abuse, mental illness in a parent, divorce, neglect and domestic violence — the more likely he or she was to also suffer from chronic stress-related health problems. Researchers at NYU who conducted an evaluation of this federal health data determined that the increase in stress related health issues is likely a lasting after-effect of the Great Recession that began in late 2007. This stress-filled time continues to cause long-term emotional damage to many Americans. When these issues are not resolved, they pile up, creating a cumulative dose of adversity.
The good news is that chronic stress is a treatable condition. A proven way to combat ongoing stress is to adopt a regular stress management program and there are many approaches available. Yet so many people do not seek out care. The problem may be even more critical when it comes to depressive disorders.
“Mental illness is on the rise. Suicide is on the rise. And access to care for the mentally ill is getting worse,” Judith Weissman, a research manager in the department of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City told NPR News last April.
Common mental disorders are also increasing worldwide. According to a study led by the United Nations health agency, depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year. It was also determined that every one dollar invested in scaling up treatment leads to a return of four dollars in better health and ability to work. According to a study of more than 50,000 people in 21 countries an estimated 350 million people are affected by depression, and the vast majority of them do not get treatment for their condition either due to stigma or due to a lack of knowledge.
Imagine a world without depression. UCLA is one of at least 19 institutions – including Carnegie Mellon University and Indiana University, attempting to end the disease entirely. UCLA recently announced that the school is dedicating an estimated $500 million to the endeavor to understand the genetic and environmental factors that play into depression.
The current approach to the problem is scaling up treatment, primarily psychosocial counseling and antidepressant medication.
According to a new analysis of federal data by The New York Times, long-term use of antidepressants is surging in the United States. The rate has almost doubled since 2010, and more than tripled since 2000. Nearly 25 million adults have been on antidepressants for at least two years, a 60 percent increase since 2010. The drugs initially were approved for short-term use for treatment for episodic mood problems, to be taken for six to nine months, enough to get through a crisis, and no more.
As far back as the mid-1990s, leading psychiatrists recognized withdrawal as a potential problem for patients taking modern antidepressants. Yet withdrawal from taking these powerful drugs was never a focus of drug makers or government regulators. The medical profession currently has no good answer for people struggling to stop taking the drugs. It also has no scientifically backed guidelines, no means to determine who is at highest risk, as well as no way to tailor appropriate strategies to individuals.
According to the New York Times report, many patients who try to stop taking the drugs often say they cannot. In a recent survey of 250 long-term users of psychiatric drugs, about half who wound down their prescriptions rated the withdrawal as severe. Nearly half who tried to quit could not do so because of these symptoms. In another study of 180 long time antidepressant users withdrawal symptoms were reported by more than 130.
Let us hope the cure for depression comes sooner rather than later.
Photo credit: at Pixabay