A Dose of reality

So now that it’s third week and you’re starting to settle in, take a good look around. You’re probably sitting in a huge lecture hall with 400 other eager Anteaters all listening to your professor’s stimulating lecture on stoichiometry right?
Did you know that because about one in every five people suffers from depression, chances are that at least one person sitting in the same row as you has it?
Unfortunately, out of all the people in your class that might be suffering from depression, only a few of them will seek any treatment.
We all get sad once in a while. We all probably throw ourselves onto our beds after a long day of midterms and whine to our roommates, ‘I’m so depressed!’ But what is it like to truly be depressed?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, ‘depression has a variety of symptoms, but the most common is a deep feeling of sadness.’ This feeling of sadness can affect your relationships with family and friends, your productivity at work, your eating and sleeping habits, and, for students, your grades.
Depression is thought to be caused by neurotransmitters, or types of chemicals, in our brains that do not function properly, namely Serotonin and Noradrenaline. Since depression is a product of our bodies not working properly, it is considered an illness and, in many cases, treated with medication called antidepressants.
Antidepressants; does that word ring a bell in an I-just-heard-something-about-that-on-the-news kind of way? That is because in March of this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that certain antidepressants may actually worsen depression and invoke suicidal tendencies in those who take them.
These brands of anti-depressants include Zoloft, Paxil, Wellbutrin, and the ever- popular Prozac. The FDA is now asking the companies that manufacture these brands of antidepressants, as well as many others, to include on their labeling a risk warning.
So what is an eager Anteater to do after being told that the thing they were hoping would save them might actually kill them? It was difficult to track down students who were willing to talk about their battle with depression, but it’s not hard to understand why. According to a survey conducted by the National Mental Health Association, 54 percent of Americans see depression as a sign of weakness. In a competitive college environment no one wants to be seen as weak.
Fortunately, two students at UCI, John and Kelly (whose names have been changed for their privacy), were willing to share their experiences and hopefully clear up any misconceptions their fellow students might have about depression or the use of antidepressants.
According to John, the fact that people think that depression only happens to people who are weak is irritating.
‘[A common misconception] is that taking this medication constitutes some kind of weakness on my part. Weakness is not taking proper care of yourself, not operating at 100 percent and not utilizing every legitimate means at your disposal to do something about it,’ John said. ‘Another is that we’re crazy, we’ve got screws loose or that we’re not right in the head in the classic sense of the expression. The misconceptions are highly ignorant and irritating and yes, a lot or people have them.’
According to Kelly, many
students at UCI are unaware of what it means to be clinically depressed.
‘I think a lot of high school and maybe early college may seem like an emotional roller coaster and it probably is. But everyone is diagnosing themselves and making their problems seem bigger than they really are,’ Kelly said. ‘Not every blue day is a sign of clinical depression. You don’t want depression because it’s horrible.’
Another misperception that many people have about the use of antidepressants is that one little pill will automatically make you feel better.
According to Kelly, in reality, many people have to go through many combinations of drugs and different dosage levels in order to feel better.
This is often because depression accompanies other mental disorders such as schizophrenia, anxiety, obsessive disorders, bipolar disorde and in some cases, eating disorders.
Correctly diagnosing one’s mental condition and finding the right combination of drugs can take months and even years.
People who take antidepressants have to also deal with many side effects that range from mild to severe.
‘I’ve definitely come across drugs that didn’t work for me,’ Kelly said. ‘I’ve been on dozens of drugs, dozens of combinations and some had incredibly negative and dangerous effects on me.’
John points out that even though taking Prozac has improved his life, the side effects are still hard to deal with.
‘When I first started taking Prozac, all the dark feelings associated with my depression melted away, the clouds parted and it felt like I was on a perpetual dose of chocolate that I had never tasted before,’ John said. ‘I think in the last five years I’ve built up a tolerance to it [and] it’s no longer doing the job. I want something with fewer side effects. There are some sexual side effects that are annoying.’

ALTERNATIVES

For those who are concerned with recent findings by the FDA that antidepressants might do more harm than good, effective alternatives for treating depression do exist.
In a study conducted by Dr. James Blumenthal at Duke University, 156 people diagnosed with clinical depression were separated into three groups. The first group was treated solely with medication, the second group was treated with only physical exercise, and the third group was treated with a combination of medication and physical exercise.
The results of the study were surprising; the group that only exercised showed the same rate of improvement as the group that was only treated with medication.
Blumenthal and his team concluded that exercise can be just as effective as medication in treating depression. He explained why exercise might even be a more appealing way to combat depression.
‘I think that one of the appeals of exercising is that people are really taking an active role in their treatment,’ Blumenthal said. ‘Taking a pill is a very passive kind of activity, and I think having a sense of control over what you’re doing and feeling that
sense of accomplishment are important.’
Another alternative to mainstream antidepressants is an herbal remedy called Hypericum, made from the herb St. John’s Wort. Hypericum is widely used to treat depression in Germany and has proven to be just as effective as more popular antidepressants.
John is hopeful that he will eventually find other ways to treat his depression.
‘When I’ve got more time
and money, I’m going to try a therapeutic approach to my
depression. I don’t intend to be on medication for the rest of my life,’ he said.
Kelly, however, sees her use of medication as something that may very well be permanent.
‘There are some disorders that are for life,’ she said. ‘One
needs to come to an understanding that pills may be a daily
thing for the rest of his or her
life.’