Unlike many physical illnesses, depression in women goes largely undiagnosed and untreated. An estimated 7 million women suffer from depression, which is about twice the rate for men.
Popular theory suggests that women are diagnosed more because they are more willing to seek help. However, research suggests the circumstances in women's lives contribute to the higher incidence of major depression. Women are at higher risk because they are likely to experience less power in their jobs and homes, physical and sexual abuse, discrimination and stresses from childbearing and child-rearing.
Q: What is the difference between depression and just feeling sad?
A: Most people occasionally feel sad for a few hours or days. But depression also has physical symptoms. They include:
* Loss of appetite or major weight gain
* Inability to sleep or oversleeping
* Headaches and stomach aches
* Joint pain or chronic aches and pains
Q: What about other emotional problems?
A: Contrary to popular belief, crying isn't the only major symptom. Others include:
* Feelings of helplessness
* Difficulty making decisions or remembering them
* Trouble concentrating
* Continuous fatigue and irritability
Q: Are there different kinds of depression?
A: There are three primary depressive disorders:
* Major depression: This illness includes a combination of symptoms that affect mood, behavior, mind and body. It is treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
* Bipolar disorder: Also called manic-depressive illness, this condition is characterized by severe mood swings. Women and men experience terrible lows and extreme highs. For some people these cycles can be as frequent as every few days or can cover a period of weeks, months and years. This disorder requires medical attention and is successfully treated with medication.
* Dysthymia: Characterized by long-term chronic symptoms that may not interfere with daily living, this condition keeps women from feeling completely well. Dysthymia affects mood and behavior and can be treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
Research shows that women are at higher risk for major depression and dysthymia throughout the world and across racial and socioeconomic boundaries. Bipolar disorder occurs about equally in men and women.
Q: Are there groups of women who suffer more from depression?
A: The highest rate of treated and untreated depression is among poor women who head single-parent families and young, unhappily married women. Menopausal women who have other difficulties, such as caring for elderly parents, problems with teen-agers or other responsibilities in their lives also may experience depression. Contrary to popular opinion, empty nest syndrome is not a major cause of depression in most women.
Q: Which women have the highest depression rate?
A: Research shows that unhappily married women do. They are three times as likely as men to be depressed and almost half of all women in unhappy marriages are depressed.
Q: Are suicidal thoughts symptoms of depression?
A: Absolutely. Anyone who thinks about or attempts suicide is in need of immediate medical help. Threats of suicide always should be taken seriously.
Q: Is it true that suicide is on the increase in young women?
A: Unfortunately, during the last two decades there has been a 250 percent increase among girls and young women aged 15 to 24. However, there's a 300 percent increase in boys the same age. With appropriate intervention, adolescents suffering from depression can be treated.
Dr. Matanoski is a physician and professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.