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Ask the Experts

Question:

Sometimes I feel my depression is going to kill me. Does depression ever kill people who are not committing suicide?

Answered by: Michael Grunebaum

Major depressive disorder or “depression” does not kill people in and of itself. However, like many common, chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, the most extreme manifestations of it can be life-threatening. In the case of depression, examples would include suicide or not maintaining adequate nutrition.

Depression may involve many physical symptoms, including pain, tingling, chills, foggy-headed feelings, and severe fatigue. However, in general, these are not in and of themselves life-threatening. Nonetheless, for a person suffering from depression, they can make life feel unbearable. In some people with depression, this can lead to hopelessness, and at the extreme, to suicidal behavior.

A specific type of depression called melancholia or melancholic depression can cause people to lose their appetite and sufferers may lose significant amounts of weight. Again, in the most severe cases of melancholia causing inadequate nutrition, this can become life-threatening. When depression is this severe, or in the case of suicidal plans or behavior, hospitalization may be the safest and best course of action and may indeed be life-saving.

For many if not most sufferers, however, depression tends to come and go and can usually be managed on an outpatient basis. A key ingredient to this is developing a positive, working relationship with a qualified health professional that can last over time. Clinicians can be more helpful if they know what a patient is like when they are well, not just during times of depression.

Dealing with depression requires endurance, more like a marathon than a sprint, but fortunately there are many effective medications and psychotherapies. Sometimes medication or psychotherapy alone is sufficient, but research evidence suggests that the combination may be more potent. Other activities, such as exercise, yoga, and maintaining friendships, are also likely to stave off depression.

Just as in the case of other common, chronic ailments like high blood pressure or diabetes, most persons with depression live normal, productive lives. It may take some time and trial and error to find just the right treatment. For the treatment to provide relief also may take weeks to months, but in most cases the outlook is hopeful.