Understanding Depression

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Mental health is just as important as your physical health after a spinal cord injury, and unfortunately, many people with spinal cord injuries experience depression after being injured. While depression is a widely-used term that references feeling down, it is actually a serious medical condition involving the brain. Experts define depression as a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness, as well as a loss of interest in life in general.

Experts say that depression rates among people with spinal cord injuries ranges from 11% to 37%, which is higher than the national average of 10%. It is common for people with spinal cord injuries to experience depression because their life has changed dramatically. The profound change from perfect health to limited mobility can be a difficult transition.

The loss of independence and the extreme change in identity after a SCI can also lead to depression. Many people with paralysis say they begin to feel used to their “new normal” after a couple of years. Just remember that you are not alone if you’re experiencing depression following your injury. It is common and, fortunately, there are many resources available to help.

Symptoms of Depression

If you become depressed after your injury, it is not simply feeling sad or being worried about what’s to come. Depression can impact your physical health and your daily activities, as well as your thoughts and feelings. Here are some of the symptoms of depression to watch out for following a SCI:

  • Changes in sleep, whether it is too much or too little
  • Changes in appetite, either too much or not enough
  • Limited energy to complete daily activities
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Blaming yourself and feeling worthless
  • Difficulties finding pleasure in anything
  • Not finding meaning in anything
  • Not taking care of your hygiene; lack of self-care
  • Substance abuse
  • No longer communicating like you once did

It is critical that you do not ignore any symptoms of depression. Letting depression continue untreated can be dangerous, with those affected sometimes attempting self-harm or even suicide if their depression is ignored. Life after a SCI may be different, but it does not need to be a life of sadness. Many people find a new kind of happiness following the experience of a spinal cord injury and depression.

Find Help Near You

Fortunately, there are many places you can find help locally to talk to someone as soon as possible. Getting help is not a sign of weakness; rather, it’s a sign of strength and taking responsibility for your own health. Depression can last from 6 months to 12 months, and sometimes even longer. The sooner you seek treatment, the easier it will be to treat your depression. Antidepressants and therapy are commonly used to treat depression, but exercise can also help.

To find a therapist or psychiatrist near you, make an appointment with your regular doctor and get a referral to a mental health therapist. Or, you can make an appointment with a spinal cord injury doctor at your nearest rehabilitation center. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, you can also go to the emergency room, where an emergency room physician can refer you to a mental health specialist.

There are also two free 24 hour help-lines available nationally that you can call to get help right now:

  • Boys Town National Hotline is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is staffed by specially trained Boys Town counselors. It is accredited by the American Association of Suicidiology (AAS) and is designed to provide help to youth and parents. Call Boys Town at 800-448-3000.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour, toll-free suicide prevention service available to anyone in suicidal crisis. If you need help, dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Additionally, the University of Washington Department of Rehabilitation Medicine offers a series of free, online pamphlets with information on topics including Depression and Spinal Cord Injury. Find them here: http://sci.washington.edu/info/pamphlets/depression_sci.asp

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