Depression is a very common mental illness, affecting some 3-5% of the population at any one time – it’s thought that 1 in 5 of us will experience at least one episode of significant depression in our lifetimes. Employers and health insurers are acutely aware of the cost of depression, which is becoming one of the most costly chronic illnesses of our time. Depression causes low-mood & sadness but also low-energy, loss-of-appetite, fatigue, pain (or a worsening experience of pain), sleep problems, and more.

Can we avoid depression?

Yes. It turns out that there are some proven ways to reduce your chances of becoming depressed. Effective strategies include:

  • Exercise. A great many studies have shown a clear link between inactivity and depression. It is clear that active living reduces depression-risk and indeed, patients suffering from depression are almost always advised to get active as part of their treatment.
  • Diet. There are published studies showing that a healthy diet reduces depression-risk. In particular the idea is to reduce our intake of processed / refined foods in favour of more natural foods.
  • Relationships. It has long been observed that those who have significant long-term relationships (romantic or family or friendship) suffer less depression. It is less clear how many significant relationships is ideal but we can say that humans are not really meant to be, or be at our best, living and being alone (at least not all the time). A more recent and growing concern is around the quality of social-media-driven relationships: as more and more people count their “friends” as anyone they engage with online, the value of these virtual or mainly-virtual relationships, for our mental wellbeing, becomes questionable. Something to watch in future…
  • Weather. We know that people in certain climates can suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, a form a depression) during winter when they get little or no exposure to sunlight. We also know that a little bit of sunshine is good for our moods (and bones, and immunity, and skin, and more). That being said, please do not rush out into the sun, only to expose yourself to real skin-cancer risk. The reality for nearly all of us living in warm sunny climates is that we already get enough sunshine to prevent depression – 15 minutes 2-3 times a week is enough and we nearly all get at least that, in southern Africa.
  • Sleep. One of the modern world’s great problems is exhaustion. People seem to be so tired and there is always more “to-do” than there is time. This causes many health problems including an increased risk of depression. It’s a complex issue (the many causes of fatigue) but one simple and powerful remedy is getting enough sleep. The simple fact is that nearly all adults do best (are happier and more productive and more well) with 7-8 hours a night: if you’re getting less then you’ve just found a great place to start you journey to a more-well  more-happy you.
  • Money. There are many cause of stress in life, but money is a big one, and it’s linked to depression too. Managing your finances sensibly (realistic budgeting, long-term saving, avoiding debt, etc.) could really help your mental wellbeing.
  • Drugs & Alcohol. This is complex but the short version is that drugs & alcohol can cause depression while it is also true that depressed folks often turn to drugs & alcohol, in an effort to cope. So it becomes a bit of a “chicken & egg” debate around what comes first. Either way, mental wellness is yet another area of your life that can be harmed by drugs & alcohol, despite how it might seem short-term. We have probably all reached for a drink after a rough day, and maybe that’s OK now and again. But if it is becoming a pattern please be careful.
  • Purpose. Another tricky one. Research shows that people who feel a sense of purpose about life are usually happier, more content, and at less risk of being depressed. The purpose might be family, spiritual, material or financial, or anything that is important to you. It’s no guarantee (there are certainly exceptions), and it’s well beyond the scope of this article to propose how we find life-purpose, but it’s something you may want to consider for yourself. What’s really important to you and are you working on it?

What if this doesn’t work?

The strategies outlined above can really reduce your risk of becoming depressed, and they offer many other health & wellness benefits of course. But there is no guarantee. For now we’re likely to continue to see close to 1 in 5 of us being depressed at some stage. What we do know though, is that treatment works. Whether it’s counselling or medication, or both, the overwhelming majority of patients with depression will feel better on treatment (quite often, long-term treatment is needed but patients still feel better, which is the key). So if you consistently feel sad, unhappy, low, listless, exhausted, etc. please know that you could be depressed and please seek professional help.

Depression is a serious and common condition. Balanced healthy living can go some way to preventing it and modern treatment is very effective. Please add your own thoughts and comments below.