Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Depression...

There is a song with the refrain ‘I’m so glad it’s raining’. Have you heard it? If it resonates in your head then the refrain might bring up the sadness the song was supposed to portray. We’re talking about depression. It is a serious affliction and one that destroys thousands of lives every year. In fact, according to a 2001 Surgeon General report some 20 million of us will suffer from depression. Athletes are not immune to the effects.

Just like everyone else, athletes can be ravaged by depression. What’s worse, athletes sometimes perceive their affliction as weakness, which further compounds the issue. They isolate themselves from their teammates and coaches for fear of being considered feeble-minded. In other words, athletes suffering from depression fail to talk about their issues, or seek the medical attention they need. The stigmatism of depression, and mental illness, is just too much for some people to bear; especially for those considered strong and powerful. However, some progress has been made.

In a 2001 survey, 55 percent of the respondents stated they felt that depression was a disease. In contrast, only 38 percent of respondents felt depression was a disease in a 1991 survey. Obviously, people are more aware of how serious mental illness can be.

So what causes depression?

At the most basic level, no one really knows exactly why depression occurs. The brain is a very complex organ. Doctors are just beginning to understand the confusing matrix of the brain’s chemistry. The most available research suggests that it is a result of low levels of certain neurotransmitters (messenger chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to the next) in the brain. This is called the 'monoamine theory' of depression — monoamines being the group of chemicals that these neurotransmitters belong to. A decrease or increase of these neurotransmitters can bring on a serious bout of depression.

What can one do about depression?

Ironically, one of the best ways to avoid depression is exercise. In fact, according to a Duke University study, exercise can cure depression. The Duke researchers separated a group of 156 depressed men and women in to three groups. The first group took only medication to cure their depression. A second group exercised to cure their depression. The final group combined both medicine and exercise. In the end, all the groups improved. The third group faired the best. What’s most interesting is 60 percent of the exercise-only group was considered cured of depression.

What can athletes do about depression?

Talk! The idea that athletes are indestructible machines is flawed. Facing the problem is one of the most courageous acts. The problem has not gone unnoticed; even the NFL is taking the problem seriously. They have set up systems to watch for depression like states in athletes. Furthermore, some teams have employed counselors to help athletes recover from depression. On a personal note, it is all about talking. Being able to say you feel bad needs to be an OK thing in our world. Having lost friends to depression, I believe in the power of talking. As an athlete, I do what I can to bring up painful aspects in my life. I hope others will do the same.

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