The human body is continuously trying to repair itself, and it appears that many cases of depressive illness are spontaneously repaired by our own brain in the first few weeks of their occurrence. However, if spontaneous cure has not occurred within one month, research indicates that the illness will continue for at least six months in at least 75% of cases.
There are a number of problems associated with leaving depressive illness untreated, especially after the first month of symptoms, when the chance of early spontaneous recovery has been missed. The complications of untreated depression include :-
- Prolonged personal suffering. Depressive illness produces personal distress of varying levels of intensity. Not taking antidepressant medication allows this distress to continue needlessly. There are no prizes given for tolerating unnecessary physical or mental suffering in order to state that one never takes medication.
- Worsening of symptoms. Untreated depressive illness does not necessarily relentlessly move towards eventual recovery, but in a number of cases causes the opposite to happen. Your symptoms may get considerably worse than they are now, especially if you are under stress or in a difficult relationship.
- Risk of suicide. Depressive illness tries to convince you that everything is hopeless, and tries to convince you that the future will consist of ongoing suffering, making suicide seem an attractive escape. This is very distorted thinking due to depressive illness. International research in various countries has repeatedly shown that almost 80% of people who have committed suicide have had uncontrolled depressive illness at the time of their death. For every person dies from suicide, a further 30 to 40 people have harmed themselves, many of whom also have been driven to this action as a result of having untreated depressive illness, often unrecognised by themselves or by their doctors. Depressive illness is like an alien which controls your thinking and tries to kill you.
- Damage to relationships. People with depressive illness seem to others to be as normal as ever, apart from their changed mood and behaviour. Unless depressive illness is recognised as an illness, many partners and friends feel alienated by the change in personality, the irritability, and the poor functioning of the person with depressive illness. Unfortunately, many relationships break down irretrievably if depressive illness goes on untreated, as the depressed person becomes more withdrawn, more irritable, less able to do their normal tasks, and usually markedly less interested in normal sexual activity.
- Damage to children. There is widespread research to indicate increased risks of anxiety, poor self-esteem and other physical and psychological symptoms in the children of parents who are depressed, including young babies whose mothers have untreated post-natal depressive illness.
- Loss of work or study. The World Health Organisation estimates that by the Year 2020, depressive illness will be second only to heart and blood vessel disease in the illnesses that cause marked loss of productivity in human society. Untreated depressive illness progressively handicaps an individual’s ability to work, study or carry out their home duties.
- SOWING THE SEEDS OF RELAPSE. In many ways depressive illness is like cancer, whereby prolonged and severe symptoms increase the risks of relapse of this illness in the future. We now also believe that depressive illness is associated with changes in the electrical patterns within the brain, and our brains learn to more easily reproduce this pattern, a process known as ‘kindling’. Untreated depressive illness has at least a 50% chance of returning.
- RISK OF HEART DISEASE: Research in recent years has confirmed that an episode of depression is as dangerous as smoking in causing heart disease and heart attacks. And if you have a heart attack and develop depression before or after your heart attack, your risk of dying in the next twelve months is doubled.
- BRAIN DAMAGE: Recent research using MRI scans of the brain has come up with disturbing findings. When people suffer depression, a part of their brain known as the hippocampus shrinks in size. When they recover, the hippocampus returns to normal size. However, if depression is left untreated, or poorly treated, for long, the brain fails to recover, and the person is at increased risk of permanent illness, or frequent attacks of depression.
- It seems that stress causes the release of steroids in the brain, which actually damage the brain, by locking onto “glucocorticoid receptors” on the cells of the brain. Future antidepressants are in the research stage, known as Glucocorticoid Receptor Antagonists. These drugs will prevent stress-released steroids from causing this brain damage.
Many types of research in depression are increasingly clear that total elimination of depression is vital to prevent ongoing damage and suffering, just as it is vital to eliminate a cancer completely.
Medication combined with therapy have repeatedly been shown to produce the best results in treating depression.
NB: It also seems that antidepressant medication allows the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a remarkable change from the old idea that brain cells are too specialised to regrow once they have died.
Depression has been an illness affecting human beings for as far back as we can trace the history of medicine, with Hippocrates describing the illness in 400BC! In contrast, the first definitely effective treatment for depressive illness was the invention of ECT (shock treatment) in the 1920s, largely replaced now by the use of antidepressant medications, which were first discovered in the 1940s.
The reality therefore is that, in olden times, and unfortunately even now, the majority of people with depressive illness do not receive antidepressant medication or any other effective treatment. Indeed our research suggests that many people who have been diagnosed as suffering from depressive illness are treated either with inadequate doses of antidepressants or with other medications which are not antidepressants.
Untreated depressive illness either gets better or worse, you either live or die! Yes, the vast majority of people with depression will recover, but do not let it dig in.
Important Disclaimer: This site is medical information only, and is not to be taken as diagnosis, advice or treatment, which can only be decided by your own doctor.