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Depression a common, but treatable, disease


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(CNN) -- They call it "the invisible illness," and for good reason: Depression affects nearly one in 10 U.S. adults each year, but experts say the disease is treatable in most cases.

For a proper diagnosis, health professionals look at several symptoms, including change in weight or sleeping habits, loss of energy or fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt. Most of these signs and symptoms must be present most of the day, every day for at least two weeks.

"There is a misconception about what depression looks like," said Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. "People think it is crying all the time and wringing your hands. ... [People with depression] rarely have that kind of emotional display."

The number of people diagnosed with depression has tripled since the 1980s, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, partly because of public awareness campaigns and the fading stigma of the disease.

The good news is that conquering depression is possible. There are more treatment options than ever before. And according to Insel, 70 to 80 percent of those who seek treatment can be helped.

Promise in a pill?

Among those treatments are antidepressant medications. Drugs such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and Zyban have almost become household words in the past decade as drug companies use magazines and television to advertise their particular brand of medication.

But do antidepressants really work?

In more than half the drug company studies through the '90s, antidepressants were no better than a sugar pill, according to a study of Food and Drug Administration data published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Representatives of the drug industry contacted by CNN acknowledge antidepressants' effects vary from person to person, but say the medicines do help millions of people.

Molly Canfield has used an array of antidepressants at different times in her nearly 20-year battle with depression, and all had differing effects for her. Despite that, she said the drugs have helped and she wouldn't go off the medication.

"It's like a diabetic who is considering insulin. You wouldn't ask them to go without their insulin," Canfield said. "People who have antidepressants and can benefit from them; It plugs in that part of you that's not there."

Because depression is an episodic disease, antidepressants can help control future bouts with depression, too, said Alexander Glassman, a professor of psychiatry with Columbia University.

"One of the things that is most remarkable about these drugs is that when they work. They not only work on the acute episode, but prevent another one from coming," explained Glassman.

But how long should somebody take antidepressants? No one really knows, said Glassman.

"What will happen in the future is impossible to say. We could never have said 30 years ago what these drugs would be today," Glassman said. "None of the antidepressants are wonder drugs -- they are not perfect but they do help."

The Mayo Clinic reports that along with medication, psychotherapy is a treatment option which can help patients cope with on-going problems that may trigger depression.

CNN's Betsy Anderson contributed to this report.


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