08/13/2014 04:30 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

The Challenge of Major Depressive Disorder

In wake of Robin Williams suicide and the subsequent discussions about mental health, I decided to repost a piece that was first published in 2002. Peace and blessings, Byron

The alarm goes off and you greet the morning with sleepless eyes or perhaps sleep is all that you desire to do. Your world is closing in leaving you somewhere between sad, irritable and tense. You do not have the energy for the things that you normally do. Your mind is occupied with feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt. You are tired but you cannot sleep, hungry but cannot eat; and for some suicide crosses the mind as a viable option.

If any of this sounds familiar you may be part of the fraternity that comprises approximately five percent of the American population within a given year, better known as major depressive disorder.

Major depressive disorder, commonly referred to as "depression," can severely disrupt one's life, affecting appetite, sleep, work, and relationships. Roughly 16 percent of Americans will experience depression during their lifetime.

Depression is not something you can just "snap out of." It's caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals, along with other factors. A depressive disorder is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. People with a depressive illness cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better.

Former television talk show host, Dick Cavett offers in my view the most succinct description of depression's paralyzing grip on the mind:

"If there were a magic wand across the room on the table that would make you happy and give you everything you want, it would be too much pick it up."

The cost in human suffering cannot be estimated. Friends and family are often frustrated by what is dismissed as "selfish" behavior. Depression, especially that which goes untreated, can exact a heavy toll on everyone involved. The ignorance associated with depression can cause the most well-meaning individual to further isolate the one they are trying to help.

Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years. Appropriate treatment, however, can help most people who suffer from depression. Yet, nearly two-thirds of depressed people do not get proper treatment.

Women are almost twice as likely to become depressed as men. The higher risk may be due partly to hormonal changes brought on by puberty, menstruation, menopause, and pregnancy.

Although their risk for depression is lower, men are more likely to go undiagnosed and less likely to seek help. They may show the typical symptoms of depression, but are more likely to be angry and hostile or to mask their condition with alcohol or drug abuse. Suicide is an especially serious risk for men with depression, who are four times more likely than women to kill themselves.

The myriad physical and emotional challenges for seniors, such as the loss of a life-long partner or prolonged illness can also contribute to depression.

Too often the symptoms of depression are not recognized for what they are. Many symptoms are misdiagnosed as physical problems. There is a temptation to exclusively place a sociological or theological critique on something that requires a clinical analysis.

The social stigma associated with depression causes many people to remain "closeted," avoiding the very help they need. At a time when they should be reaching out they sink further into an abyss of darkness and isolation.

Depression is of particular interest to me because I am part of the illustrious five percent that must sometimes battle with its haunting affects. There have been times when depression has placed undo stress on important relationships in my life.

Having been diagnosed five years ago, it is an ongoing challenge to recognize the symptoms and take the necessary precautions. Treating the symptoms, however, does not address the underlying causes. Without understanding the root causes, the symptoms of depression can place one on a treadmill of aggravation.

I decided to speak openly about depression because too many individuals in our society are attempting to function with untreated major depressive disorder. The person writing our prescriptions, providing legal advice, rotating our tires, or the one we pledged "I do" could very well be part of the population that is depressed.

If you find yourself tired, restless, unable to eat, eating too much, canceling activities, unable to sleep through the night, or simply irritable, ask yourself "how long has it been?" "Am I developing a pattern?"

If so, contact a doctor or a mental health professional immediately. Depression is treatable, but you must take the first step.