How cops can identify the symptoms of depression
Officers, for all their discipline and strength, are at greater risk of debilitating depression and suicide than the general public
October seems to be a particularly significant month for a lot of people, many who even claim it as their favorite. October heralds the transition from summer to fall in much of North America, with its gentle shift in clime and color. Football and all its associated fun is in full swing, both creating and sparking memories for kids and adults. It is the perfect time for hiking, running, climbing and biking before winter takes hold. Halloween is a favorite of many, ushering in the holiday season, and, of course, ‘tis the start of all things pumpkin spice.
But for all its glory, this month has a more serious significance, and one all in law enforcement should be mindful of: October is Depression Awareness Month. Awareness and management of depression is something very important to us as law enforcement writers – especially with one of us being a psychotherapist and the other a working street cop – and it’s a message we’ll keep bringing up because of its significance. Police officers, apart from mental health providers, will see and deal with depression more than any other profession, so it is important to have knowledge, resources and tools readily available.
But you and those closest to you are not immune to depression. In fact, the pressures and demands of the job you do can easily make you susceptible to falling victim to depression’s grip. Officers, for all their discipline and strength, are at greater risk of debilitating depression and suicide than the general public. Even if it doesn’t touch you or your immediate family, it is crushing someone you work with and care for right now, even if you are completely unaware.
The scope of depressive disorders
Compounding the direct problem of depression is the continuing stigma attached to those suffering from mental illness and the belief that it is not a real illness. Since mental illness is of the mind, many refuse to consider it as an organic disease like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, psoriasis or any other dysfunction of any other organ. Perhaps this is because the products of the minds – our thoughts, feelings and perceptions – seem abstract or somehow disconnected from organic function.
What that abstraction ignores is that the mind springs directly from the brain, the command center, and our most complex and delicately balanced organ. Like any other organ, things can go awry and lead to diseases ranging from mild and easily corrected to life-threatening. Of these diseases, depressive disorders are extremely common, with major depression wreaking the most havoc. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health:
Major depression is a serious medical illness affecting 15 million American adults, or approximately 5-8 percent of the adult population in a given year. Unlike normal emotional experiences of sadness, loss or passing mood states, major depression is persistent and can significantly interfere with an individual's thoughts, behavior, mood, activity and physical health. Among all medical illnesses, major depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States.”
Research into depression and its genesis has illuminated both the scope of the problem and its roots in genetic and biological etiology. We now know individuals coping with depression have a higher level of stress hormones present in their bodies, and brain scans of depressed patients show decreased activity in some areas of the brain. Depressed people have a lack of or overproduction of certain chemicals needed in the brain to be released into the bloodstream to stabilize a person’s mood. Without the proper chemical balance a person’s mood will fluctuate and go to lows from which a person cannot rebound back without the proper medical help and interventions.
Consider too that there are other types of serious depressive disorders, such as bipolar disorder, dysthymia (a chronic low-grade depression often lasting for months or years) and adjustment disorders with depressed mood, and the number of people suffering from depression grows by millions more. Not all depression looks or feels the same. It can come and go or fluctuate in severity and affects people in myriad ways. At its worst, depression is deadly, leading to suicide and frequent (and arguably deliberate, if even subconsciously) self-destructive habits. In less severe forms it impairs functioning, happiness and success, often leading to a self-inhibiting feedback loop.
Depression is highly treatable with effective intervention
The good news is depressive disorders are highly treatable. The earlier someone seeks intervention, the quicker and more complete the response to treatment. Research has shown that depression treatment has as high as a 90 percent success rate when a licensed counselor and a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medication, are working in conjunction, with people generally reporting they feel more like their old selves in as little as three to six weeks. The counselor will identify behaviors and cognitive patterns that increase vulnerability to depression and then challenge and motivate the patient to begin changing out those old patterns with new behaviors and cognitions. They teach how putting the good behaviors into practice, over time, causes good feelings to eventually follow and that it is the repetitiveness of good behaviors that finally begins to heal the depression.
Psychiatric intervention in the form of medication therapy is often indicated. Medication therapy most often treats the lack of serotonin (a hormone necessary to regulate mood) in the blood stream, or the body’s inefficient use of the serotonin it does have, and may address other known biochemical causes of mood disorders.
Stigma surrounding the use of medications to treat mental illnesses sadly remains in the law enforcement community, but if your life and well-being were threatened by another disease that could be easily treated with medications, would you refuse them?
Do I, or someone I care about, suffer from depression?
Before depression can be treated it must be detected and diagnosed, and helping that cause is one of the major focal points of Depression Awareness Month. Recognizing some of the common symptoms of depression is important. Below are some of the indicators most commonly used by mental health practitioners. When you are experiencing any of the following, and it’s affecting your quality of life and functioning, it is time to look for help:
- Persistent sad, anxious or empty feelings.
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism.
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness.
- Irritability or restlessness.
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex.
- Fatigue and decreased energy.
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions.
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness or excessive sleeping.
- Overeating, or appetite loss.
- Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts.
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.
- Mood swings.
- Change in motivation or getting things done.
These are all markers that are easily used for a quick self-assessment. One of the simplest but most revealing indicators we use is the answer to the following question: Are you having more bad days than good?
If the answer is “Yes” then seeking help is definitely indicated. There is a strong possibility depression is the culprit.
Depression can strike anyone and often out of the blue. While five to eight percent of the population experiencing major depression in any given year might not concern you personally, consider that as many as 45 percent of us will experience a mental health disorder at some point in our lives, with depression being a very likely component. No one is immune. And remember, even if it is not you, someone you know and care about is suffering from depression right now. Awareness also involves looking out for those around us.
Be well, stay safe and help us fight this silent destroyer of lives and happiness.
This article, originally published October 2016, has been updated.
More from Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski: How to tell if you are depressed and when to get help