FORT LEE, Va. (Oct. 22, 2009) The month of October is designated as National Depression Education and Awareness Month. The Army views this observance as an opportunity to increase the awareness of Soldiers, Family members and Civilians about the signs and symptoms of depression, treatment and behavioral health resources available for care.

The relationship among stressful situations, our mind and body’s reaction to stress, and clinical depression is complex. Clinical depression is associated with an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that carry communications between the nerve cells that control mood and other body systems. Clinical depression is defined as a period of sadness that affects an individual’s ability to work, sleep, eat and enjoy once-pleasurable activities.

It is not uncommon for stressful positive or negative events to precede the development of clinical depression. Stressful events are common in the military service and in military Family members. Negative life experiences, medication, rigid thinking patterns, lack of sunlight, and certain personality traits and genetic factors can influence clinical depression. Depression may develop after a stressful negative event, such as the death of a loved one, loss of a job, end of a relationship or physical illness. Stress can also occur from a positive event such as getting married, moving to a new city or starting a new job. No single stressful event will cause depression to develop in every person, but stressful experiences may contribute to the development of depression.

A stressful event is more likely to come before a first depressive episode. After that, depression may develop spontaneously with stress leading to the depression. For those who struggle with chronic depression, the effects of stress may be more complicated. A theory called the “kindling effect,” proposes that initial depressive episodes spark changes in the brain’s chemistry that make it more prone to future depression just as the use of kindling wood sparks the flames of a campfire. Because early episodes of depression make a person more sensitive, even small stressors can lead to later depressive episodes.

Depression may also result from struggles with chronic stress. This stress may be due to juggling multiple roles at home and work, making major changes in lifestyle, coping with deployment issues, handling normal transitions in life, dealing with children leaving the home, or struggling with a reduction of position and finances.

If a person is under continuous stress, a single difficult event may be more likely to induce a depressive episode. Researchers theorize that when people experience chronic or repeated stressful events, they learn to feel helpless. This feeling of helplessness is strengthened when a person believes he or she has no control over the stressful situation. When a depressed mood persists for several months and interferes with everyday living, it is likely a sign of serious depression that requires treatment.

With appropriate treatment, many people can experience improvement in a relatively short period of time and are able to function fully and control the chance of recurrence. Treatment can include medication and talk therapy. Medication helps to balance chemicals in the brain, and talk therapy helps individuals to identify and correct common errors in their thinking. Without treatment, the costs of depression can be very high, to include loss of jobs, destroyed relationships, isolation from their communities, and reduction in physical or mental health.

As the Army’s theme for October indicates, “There is no braver act than to ask for help if you need it.”