Major Depression (also known as major depressive disorder, clinical depression or unipolar depression) is a serious, chronic, often debilitating, and frequently even deadly, disease. It is also one of our most common serious illnesses. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that in any given year some 15 million American adults, or about five to eight percent of the adult American population, will suffer from major depression. Consider also that there are other types of serious depressive disorders, such as bipolar disorder, dysthymia (chronic low-grade depression often lasting for months or years), and adjustment disorders with depressed mood, and the number of depression sufferers grow by millions more. Children and adolescents are certainly not immune either, as more and more enter treatment at ever younger ages diagnosed with depression.
Because depression and other depressive disorders are so common (who has not come face-to-face with depression in themselves, a family member, a coworker, or a close friend at some point?) and the devastation they wreak so significant, understanding of depression as a disease of the brain is greater than ever before.
Police officers have a front row seat to the world of depression and its effects: think of the despondent subject calls, the suicides, the mental health transports, the domestics, and the myriad other calls you routinely go to. Although there are still vocal and determined opponents of the disease model holding to the vestigial belief that someone who complains of depression is lazy, of weak character and constitution, a malingerer, or even demon-possessed, far more people now see depressive disorders for the serious and debilitating problems they are.
Ironically, few of us give much thought to the most remarkably complex and important organ in our bodies - the brain. We understand the brain is crucial as it relates to keeping the heart pumping and the eyes seeing and the nerves sensing, but it is as if we somehow separate the idea of our mind - the manifestation of our consciousness - from the organ from which it springs.
The truth is, the mind and all its processes of experiencing, analyzing, feeling, and thinking simply cannot be separated from the brain. Our consciousness, and its relative health, is a product of a stunningly complex, delicately balanced, and often fragile biochemical stew. Add any number of external variables that we know can act on that delicate balance, such as stress, trauma, health problems, and the unique genetic markers each of us carries (some of which can lie dormant for decades before popping up to raise a bit of havoc), and is it any wonder the delicate balance is so often upended?
As with many diseases, there is no are easy answer to the question of What causes depression? The simplest and most easily articulated answer is that it is caused by a chemical imbalance of some sort. In the brain are neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, that relay electrical signals between cell receptors and are necessary for healthy emotional functioning. If there is an imbalance or dysfunction in these neurotransmitters depression can result. The problem is, as each individual is unique so is each individual's chemical balance unique; personal habits, relative health, diet, life events, genetics, temperament, etc can all play a role in depression. In reality, that is the case with many non-mental illnesses, too. How can one person develop heart disease or cancer to cut short a relatively healthy life while his neighbor pushes the century mark on a diet rich in cigarettes and bourbon?
Major depression is a serious, sometimes tragic, disease from which no one - not even a cop - is immune. As the police, it is easy to see the effects of depression on the people you respond to. You respond based on training, policy, and experience. Will you be able to see it so clearly if it hits a colleague, a friend, or even yourself? Will you know what to do then? In our coming articles we are going to dig deeper into the topic of depression among the police. We hope you will join us as we explore this serious issue.