It’s Friday afternoon and the office is beaming with excited faces eager to plunge into the weekend. However, for Sylvia Umutoni, nothing really seems to matter; she appears lost in a different world. She out-rightly looks miserable, dejected and sad. Her body language clearly points to a person battling depression.
Like Umutoni, any of us can suffer depression for various reasons, but what is it exactly? Is it an illness, disorder, an emotion or even just a feeling?
According to Dr Daniel Gahungu, a general practitioner at Polyclinic de l’Etoile in Kigali, depression can be defined as a condition which results from a situation beyond one’s control that affects the brain.
Although scientists agree that depression is a brain disorder, the debate continues about the exact causes.
Gahungu says that many factors may contribute to the onset of depression, including genetic characteristics, changes in hormone levels, certain medications, illnesses, stress, grief or substance abuse.
“In other words, one’s lifestyle choices, relationships and coping skills matter just as much if not more so than genetics. Any of these factors alone or in combination can bring about the specific changes in brain chemistry that lead to the many symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder and related conditions,” he says.
Depression, which commonly affects one’s thoughts, emotions, behaviour and overall physical health, can be ruled out by some signs and symptoms in an individual.
Gahungu clarifies that besides a feeling of hopelessness, there are other signs and symptoms that may help experts to rule out this problem.
Feelings of sadness, trouble in concentration, missing work and other commitments, tiredness and unexplained aches or pains have been attached to being indicators of depression in one’s life.
Loss of interest in friends, family and favorite activities are also signs of depression.
“People with a family history of depression, facing marital problems, financial strains, drug abuse, early childhood abuse, stress at work and chronic pain are more vulnerable to depression,” he added.
Dr Menelas Nkeshimana, an internal medic at University Teaching Hospital of Kigali (CHUK), says depression can be categorised into mild and severe and that for one with a severe depression, he/she must be hospitalised for immediate expert attention.
He says depression can be caused by a number of factors although issues like unemployment, sickness or anything that may result to stress and consequently depression.
Depression often varies according to age and gender, with symptoms differing between men and women, or young people and adults, Gahungu says.
Experts say women are more likely to experience symptoms such as pronounced feelings of guilt, excessive sleeping, over eating and weight gain whereas men tend to complain about fatigue, irritability, sleep problems, loss of interest in work and hobbies.
In women, depression can result from hormonal factors during menstruation, pregnancy and menopause.
“Adults tend to complain more about the physical rather than the emotional symptoms of depression. These include fatigue, unexplained pains, memory problem, neglect of their personal appearance and defaulting on taking critical medication,” Nkeshimana says.
Anger and agitation are often the most noticeable symptoms in depressed teens. They may also complain of headaches, stomachaches or other physical pains.
Gahungu says that unfortunately, many people in our societies are prone to this problem due to the competitive world we are living in today but believes this can be avoided if people change the way they handle their problems.
“Many people out there are facing problems but the way one chooses to handle the situation at hand matters a lot. People should learn to be strong and have hope for the better when faced with a problem rather than living in despair which might lead to depression,” he counsels.
Dr Nkeshimana emphasises seeking medical attention from a psychiatric as the only proper means of treating depression.
Experts advise that talking to a patient face-to-face about how they feel can be of an enormous help.
“The person you talk to doesn’t have to be able to fix the problem. He or she just needs to be a good listener; someone who will listen attentively without being distracted or judging you,” Nkeshimana says.
Gahungu says isolation fuels depression, so one needs to reach out to friends and loved ones even if he/she feels like being alone or don’t want to be a burden to others.
“Starting with small activities such as exercising and taking short walks while listening to some music, dancing around will help one to feel better little by little,” he says.
Nkeshimana says taking a mood-boosting diet like Omega-3 fatty acids which include nuts, seeds and fish oil supplements will not only help your body function well but also deliver some big health benefits.
“Finding ways to engage again with the world like spending some time in nature, volunteering, picking up a hobby you used to enjoy or a new one will also make one feel much better,” he says.