- a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant
Hello! As you may or may not have gathered, I am a diseased person. My disease is not communicable, so fear not and read on! It is simply a disorder in the structure and function of my brain. It can interfere with my ability to think, and certainly to write, but I am attempting this project anyway. The stigma surrounding my illness is so pervasive and deeply ingrained in our society that it is rarely recognized, and I have become so frustrated that I feel the need to speak about it. I am by no means the only one to do so, but I have decided that adding another voice to the chorus can do no harm. Perhaps it will make us even a tiny bit louder, so that we may reach a larger audience. A gal can dream.
If I were to accomplish one thing in battling the stigma, it would be to make a convincing case for Major Depressive Disorder to be renamed. Names have power. The name of my disease has, by power of association, greatly undermined popular understanding of its severity. Major Depressive Disorder is a disabling illness that affects both the function and structure of the brain. It is associated, for instance, with a shrinking of the hippocampus. It affects memory, cognitive ability, and perception. It is associated with changes in hormone levels and neurotransmitter levels, both of which are integral to the functioning of all aspects of the body.
Major Depressive Disorder is as physical as it is psychological. Aside from the long-lasting effects of behavioral changes, studies have also demonstrated long-term physical ramifications for the body. It was reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association, for instance, that depression is strongly linked with cardiovascular disease. Individuals with a history of depression had between a 50% and >100% increase in risk for heart disease. Heart attack mortality risk was also increased by a history of depression. (JAHA 2014)
Evidence abounds regarding the physical nature of Major Depressive Disorder, and yet its classification as a mental illness seems to separate it from other serious diseases. The classification system is problematic in and of itself, but this post will address only the issues with the name. Major depression causes acute suffering in those afflicted, and it is often fatal. Still, the name includes a common adjective for a passing mood state. The word depression is often used interchangeably with sadness. The psychological community has long understood the power of association, and yet it retains an antiquated name that is associated with a changeable mood. This allows those who are uninformed to maintain the belief that the illness is merely a negative mindset. Even those with more information retain subconscious associations between depression and sadness. This encourages misperception of the illness, which in turn contributes to prejudice towards the depressed. If, for instance, depression is like a bad mood, then the afflicted are simply not making enough of an effort to look at things differently. The depressed are seen by many as simply weak, lazy, and even possessing poor moral character. It is not widely understood that it is a physical disease.
Depression is not simple to treat. No treatment is yet one hundred percent effective, and many people suffer from what is referred to as “treatment-resistant” depression. Just like with treatment-resistant bacteria, people afflicted find medication and behavioral therapies ineffective. Their bodies are simply at the mercy of the disease.
As devastating as it is to experience and as harmful as it is to the body, depression also has wide-ranging effects on a person’s life. The disease can impede a person’s ability to hold a job, have a family, and function in society. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States for those aged 15 to 44. (World Health Organization, 2004) It is not an illness that should be easily dismissed.
Major Depressive Disorder is a horrific, poorly understood illness. Though not often perceived as such, it is a disease, and it can be fatal. Some have estimated the fatality rate to be as high as 15%. For every homicide in this country, there are two suicides.(NIMH 2014) Sadly, this horrifying loss of life is viewed as personal choice rather than the outcome of a devastating disease.
Major depressive disorder has stolen many lives. The name should not remind one of a passing mood. It should be free from associations with anything that might detract from its perceived severity. A British doctor once suggested Cantophers Disease. I completely support him. We desperately need a paradigm shift, and for that, we need a new name.