Understanding depression

Can you see the birds in the picture above? Our Australian native Kookaburras.

In understanding depression, the everyday things that are in plain view are often discounted as things that lead to depression. Often we’ve become so used to living in a certain way that we’re no longer aware that certain things can be harmful to us and lead to becoming depressed or unwell.

Sometimes the reasons why a person became depressed are quite obvious. For example being traumatised, experiencing sexual assault and/or domestic violence, being bullied etc. But other times depression happens and we can’t immediately see what may have caused it or is keeping us feeling down. I think it’s important to be aware of those things that are just sitting outside of your awareness that you may not have thought could make you depressed. Having greater awareness of them will hopefully guard you from becoming depressed or could help you to recover if you feel able to make changes.

Research about women with depression

Over the past twenty years I’ve been conducting research which asked women in particular, what things they thought were associated with them becoming depressed.

I particularly focused on women because I wanted to better understand the double rate of depression for women compared to men over the life cycle. This double depression rate is not generally known publicly yet is seen over and over in community surveys that compare rates of depression between women and men.

Because there are different societal role expectations for women and for men,  there are also different reasons for depression in women compared to men. The reasons women gave in the research for becoming depressed were usually in plain view but hadn’t been counted as significant enough as reasons to produce depression. Yet when two or more of these negative life events combine, it’s enough to tip the scales.

When I started out in this area, the popular explanation given by the health field for why twice as many women as men get depressed was focused heavily on the reproductive differences between women and men. For example, the explanation that ‘higher rates of depression for women are due to a woman’s fluctuating reproductive hormones and/or biochemistry’.

Because I had previously interviewed many depressed women in my professional capacity as a counselling psychologist, who had described negative and stressful life events as reasons for why they had become depressed; I wasn’t willing to accept, as the norm, that women must by nature of being female have malfunctioning bodies.

It just seemed an overly simplistic theory. I also became aware that the ‘faulty bodies’ explanation made many women angry because they felt blamed for having caused their own depression. To accept the faulty body idea also meant that ‘negative life events’, or things going on in a woman’s life that were contributing to them becoming depressed, were being ignored or trivialised.

What women told me in my research, confirmed and built upon other research that had came from the social sciences area and was quite different to the medical area. Because I asked women what they thought, I learnt that a triggering event seems to be connected to one or more negative life events and that these things can combine to produce a depressive episode for a woman. A woman’s reproductive hormones may be a trigger, for example post natal depression (PND), or a stressful ongoing ‘negative life event’  such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and this can produce a vulnerability for depression. Yet there will also be an added combination of negative and stressful life events which then combine for depression to be the outcome. This explains why only some women become depressed after giving birth and many others don’t. There are stressful or negative life event issues in some women’s lives which may combine with the triggering and stressful event of giving birth.

Results that provide a meaningful way to help women

From the results of what women told me in the research, I developed a list of the negative life events they told me about, some of which can also be triggers. This list was then used in an online survey to several hundred other women. Further results produced confirmation and greater clarification.

This list is now known as the SHIFT-Depression®Inventory and is available online for women to complete anonymously and at no cost. It’s not a diagnostic tool in that it cannot say if a woman is depressed or not but it can give an indication of risk level for depression or help put together a map so a woman can understand what things may have led to them becoming sad or depressed. By completing the Inventory a person can see immediately whether or not they have a lot of risk factors for depression and what the negative and stressful life events and triggers are for them.

Calling it the SHIFT-Depression Inventory implies that depression will shift but in reality many people will stay sad and depressed. There are several reasons for this. It could be that a collection of negative events or relationships have changed their perspective on life now. Maybe the person has drifted into a type of comfort zone where things aren’t too bad and they can have a reasonable life, or it seems impossible to make any changes.

It’s really up to each person to decide for themselves whether or not it’s possible to make any changes. Completing the SHIFT-Depression Inventory can only show what all the issues are that have grouped together to contribute to feeling down or depressed. Knowing this could pave the way to making changes but a person will need support to do so. Either a good supportive network of friends or family, or finding a good counsellor who can listen respectfully, understand you and work at your pace.

Completing the Inventory can shine a light onto the issues which added together can place a woman at risk for depression. Many of these issues are probably in plain view but haven’t been thought of as being risk factors beforehand.

The words women in the research used to describe their depression, such as feeling powerless, stuck, silenced, angry, losing themselves, sacrificing themselves, feeling humiliated and defeated; contributed to the gradual diminishment of their sense of self until depression became the inevitable conclusion.

The other thing that I’ve learnt from women I’ve interviewed is that their depression lingered as a result of being victimised. The cloak of ‘victim’ can have a downside by keeping you depressed – of keeping you viewing yourself as unable to do things differently.

You can join the growing number of women who have completed the SHIFT-Depression®Inventory online now. You will find out about the sort of issues we now know to be negative and stressful life events, and triggers for depression.

Men may also benefit from completing the Inventory even though it is particularly targeted to women simply because the research was conducted with women. Further research is needed with men so we can understand the particular issues that will stand out for them too.

Here is a link to the SHIFT-Depression Inventory

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