How to portray DEPRESSION

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Depression is a mental disorder that is prevalent throughout literature, but many times, people go about it without doing any research into its mechanisms. In this how-to, I'll talk a little about how depression works and what causes it, hopefully without going too wild with the biology terms. I won't go into the symptoms or treatments since you can easily look that up online.

A lot of people are under the impression that there has to be some single huge event or trauma that causes depression or gives it a reason to manifest. Depression doesn't always have a REASON, not in the way most think, anyway. 

The reason is a genetic disposition that makes the person more succeptible to developing depression due to some external or internal trigger. If you take a psychology class at some point, you'll learn about this in more detail, but basically everyone's genes are slightly different, right? Some people have the genetic predisposition to react a certain way to a certain stimulus. Another person in the same situation might act differently. Why? Because of their genes.

Look at post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example. Two soliders witness a bomb blowing up and killing several people, but only one develops PTSD while the other is fine. That's because the first guy had the genetic mutation/variability to develop PTSD under that specific stressor while the other guy didn't. He was more VULNERABLE to developing the disorder under a set of stimuli.

This is the same with depression. A certain event(s) could throw the person onto a path of lifelong depression, but sometimes, the stimulus is so vague and irrelevant that people believe there was never a specific trigger. Maybe there wasn't. Maybe there were a whole host of smaller events that when compiled over the years pushed the person to becoming depressed. People with happy, satisfying lives could develop depression because it's just the way their brain reacts to things. In the same sense, a person who underwent torture, heartbreak, and all-around failed at life could be the happiest person in the world.

With depression, the genetic defect is that there's a problem with the neurotransmitters (chemical messengers of the body) or thier receptors. You can think of a neurotransmitter being a mailman, and the receptor being the mailbox. I can't remember exactly, but i believe the major neurotransmitters effected in depression are usually seratonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

In layman's terms, what's happening with depression is the chemical message carried by seratonin/norepinephrine/dopamine (feel happiness/alertness/pleasure) isn't being sent or received by the brain, and thus you don't feel happiness, alertness, or pleasure to the extent you should in certain situations. Using the mailman analogy, either the mailman got in a car accident before delivering the letter to the mailbox, or the mailbox refused to open and receive the letter.

So when someone asks if "so-and-so" is a conceivable reason for the character's depression, my answer is that you're asking the wrong question. There's not always a "conceivable reason" for depression. sometimes there is just a stupid reason or several insignificant reasons piled on over time. Anyone can have depression, whether there's a significant reason for it or not.

In the show, Burn Notice, there are two brothers, Michael and Nate. Both were raised by an abusive father, which psychologically changed them. Michael went on to join the CIA and take out criminals. Nate became a car thief and gambling addict. This one guy said a line about that situation I think is really relevant here: "Imagine that you're holding onto two bottles, and they drop on the floor. What happens? They both break. But it's how they break that's important, because while one bottle crumples into a pile of glass, the other shatters into a jagged edged weapon. You see, the exact same environment that forged older brother into a warrior crushed baby brother. People all just don't break the same."

So one person with depression might break down at the slightest triggers while another can hold themselves together in public and then cry it out when they're alone. Some don't even cry it out. They just hold it all in. In fact, it's very difficult to tell if someone has depression most of the time. How often do you hear about suicides and their family and friends are completely shocked, having had no idea they were depressed in the first place? A lot of depressed people are very good at hiding it.

What you need to understand is it's not the event that's traumatizing. It's how the person's brain reacts to that event that traumatizes them. That's probably the single most important idea here.

Disclaimer: What I'm talking about here is called the diathesis-stress model of depression, and it's simply a theory. No one can say CONCRETELY what causes depression or why people develop it, but this theory has a lot of research behind it.

There's another valid theory called the monoamine theory where the body naturally has low levels of seratonin, which controls other neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine. (again, these neurotransmitters can control mood/pleasure/alertness/etc.). Antidepressant drugs raise the levels of seratonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine. The accepted theory is that the monoamine theory and the diathesis-stress model can both be contributing factors to depression. So couple a low seratonin level with a genetic vulnerability and some stressor, and BAM the person can develop depression.

Other studies have shown significant differences in the brains of people who are depressed versus those who aren't.

Then there's the personality theory where the person might just have a more pessimistic disposition on life, and that would make them more succeptible to developing depression. 

There are countless theories out there, all of them having some validity, I believe. My take on it is this: every person is different. Not every person with depression develops it in the same way or by the same mechanism.

If you want to read about depression in more depth and scope, I've linked to the Major Depressive Disorder wikipedia article in the External Link. Also do some google searches on your own.

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