How is Research Helping Us Understand Mental Health?

Written by Shubhi Raghav |

 

 

The term “major depressive disorder” was coined no more than 50 years ago. In fact, what we would now call psychology only appeared near the end of the 19th century when Wilheim Wundt established the first psychology lab. As such, psychology has had very little time to develop and its empirical study is not as comprehensive as that of the rest of the sciences.

Despite this, psychologists today provide concrete evidence to help us understand “major depressive disorder” as a mental disorder. In brief, there are two components of major depressive disorder: biological and psychological.

 

“In brief, there are two components of major depressive disorder: biological and psychological.”

 

Biologically speaking, we’ve discovered that the unbalanced uptake of three key neurotransmitters- dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine- contributes to three key symptoms.

These are anhedonia (inability to derive pleasure), a mixture of guilt and grief, and psychomotor retardation (exhaustion to a severe extent). Antidepressants only aid 34% of the patients suffering from this disorder and thus, our focus must shift to the psychological component.

 

“There are certain psychological stressors which make coping difficult…”

 

Everybody experiences stressful events throughout their life. What differs is how long each person spends stressed and how they cope with it. There are certain psychological stressors which make coping difficult, these include:

  1. The absence of an outlet for frustration;
  2. A lack of social support;
  3. A lack of control of the situation;
  4. And a lack of predictability

 

An integral part of how these stressors affect a person is the repetition of major stress events.

“Failing to deal again and again with these stressors can lead to an extreme cognitive distortion which marks the beginning of this disorder.”

 

Failing to deal again and again with these stressors can lead to an extreme cognitive distortion which marks the beginning of this disorder. The body of a person with depression has to function with an overactive stress response which can be biologically proved by checking the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in one’s blood.

It’s unlikely the general population is aware of this, and thus many people presume depression is “being bummed out” and can be fixed by “getting over it”.

More misinformation appears when people with depression suggest feeling physical pain; most people assume it’s a delusion when in reality, that pain can be caused by the increase of a chemical called ‘Substance P’ in the blood.

Recent research indicates that encountering many stressful and/or traumatising events during childhood increases the likelihood of a person being diagnosed with a major depressive disorder in the future. This explains why people who have presumably less stressful lives fall into depression – it is not necessarily always about their current situation.

 

“This research doesn’t mean that people with a disadvantageous gene will definitely get depression”

 

Research also tells us that the likelihood of developing a depressive disorder, also increases with certain genetic factors. This doesn’t mean that people with a disadvantageous gene will definitely get depression. It offers another explanation as to why someone might get depression and how it afflict anyone at anytime.

This also explains why it is so difficult to diagnose depression correctly. There are so many factors that play a role in this mental disorder; a high number of misdiagnoses appears because the symptoms of depression overlap with other mental, and sometimes even physical, illnesses.

Research such as this suggests that if adequate social support was provided by parents, friends, teachers, and therapists, the child could develop healthy coping skills while still relatively young. The biggest focus, however, must be placed upon the stigma which still surrounds this mental disorder.

According to the Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky: depression is no different from diabetes, in the sense that it is as real and often as debilitating and thus should be treated with the same gravity.

The future of research on the major depressive disorder and how to treat it will only be possible if people who suffer from it have a chance to share their experiences and feelings freely.

Depression is a complicated disorder to understand, but it is very much real and severely affects the quality of life of its sufferers.

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