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Everyone goes through emotional ups and downs. It’s normal to feel happy for no apparent reason and equally normal to reach a low point, seemingly without cause. However, it’s less natural for our moods to swing frequently and quickly between highs and lows, or to reach a low and stay there for a long time.

Having the blues or being ‘down in the dumps’ once in a while is probably nothing to be concerned about. But depression in its more severe forms needs to be examined. Frequent or longstanding depression can affect one’s health, erode relationships and undermine academic and job performance.

What causes it?

Depressions can have psychological or physical causes.

In physically caused cases, depression may be related to a chemical imbalance in the brain or a change in body chemistry. These may require medication and specialized treatment.

Often, depression is connected to a life event or series of events. People who can point to something in their lives that started the depression are most likely psychologically affected.

Divorce, death of a loved one or the trauma of a severe accident can sometimes trigger severe, extended depression. This is especially true if the person feels shame or guilt because of what happened.

Depression can affect those who have unrealistic expectations of themselves, their families or their careers. Labeling oneself a failure or a bad person for not meeting a self-imposed standard can turn the normal ‘low days’ of one's emotional cycle into a depressive illness.

Signs of depression

It's possible to drift from feelings of sadness or low spirits into depression without realizing it. While the symptoms aren't always clear and obvious, depression may be indicated in several ways:

  • low moods that won’t go away;
  • loss of interest in everything, including friends, family, school, work and favorite activities;
  • no appetite or an excessive appetite;
  • low self-image;
  • unusual nervousness or irritability;
  • frequent crying spells;
  • sleep pattern changes;
  • feelings of guilt, hopelessness or worthlessness;
  • inability to concentrate, remember things or make decisions;
  • constant fatigue or loss of energy; or
  • recurrent thoughts of suicide or death.

Unfortunately, these symptoms can have other causes, so it's not always easy to identify a developing depression. Sometimes it takes a crisis to call attention to the problem.

What can be done?

Depression can be diagnosed and, in almost all cases, treated successfully.

Doctors and therapists can diagnose and guide people to recovery. Sources of support outside the medical field include clergy, informed friends, family members and groups of people working on their own similar concerns.

If you recognize the signs of depression in yourself or someone you care about, and if these persist for a number of weeks with no sign of improvement, it’s time to seek help.

Where to get help

UHS' Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH) is staffed by college health professionals; call (413) 545-2337.

The Faculty and Staff Assistance Program is a confidential resource for UMass Amherst employees; call (413) 545-0530.