Can Depression Be Life-Threatening?

Understanding the Risks

Depressed woman
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Depression cannot directly kill you the way that an illness like cancer or tuberculosis might, but it can have certain effects that could lead indirectly to a person being more likely to die.

Increased Risk of Suicide

The most obvious way that depression might lead to death is if the negative symptoms lead a person to decide to take their own life. Depression can make people feel helpless and without hope, causing them to reach the unfortunate conclusion that suicide is the only way to end their misery.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide was the tenth leading cause of death among all age groups in the year 2017. In 2016, there were nearly 45,000 deaths attributed to suicide in the U.S. The American Association of Suicidology estimates that depression is present in about half of all suicides.

What to Do

If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. They can recommend treatment options such as antidepressants and talk therapy that can relieve symptoms and help you feel better.

If you are suicidal or thinking of harming yourself, call 911 immediately. You can also reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Self-Medicating

Depression can also lead some individuals to turn to drugs and or alcohol to self-medicate emotional problems. This is more likely when people have poor coping skills and are not equipped to deal with painful feelings of sadness, isolation, anger, hopelessness, and stress.

When a person has depression and they develop an unhealthy dependency on these substances, it is known as a dual diagnosis since there is an issue of depression and an issue of a substance use disorder. Dual diagnosis complicates the treatment of depression since both conditions must be dealt with as separate, yet interconnected, issues. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that one in four deaths in America can be blamed on alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug use. In addition, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that substance misuse is one of the biggest risk factors for suicide.

How to Get Help

If you have symptoms of depression and substance misuse, it is important to talk to your doctor about your feelings and behaviors. An appropriate diagnosis can help ensure that you get the right treatment to address each condition.

Short-term treatments involve quitting any substances you might be using. Your doctor can make recommendations about the detox and withdrawal process. Depending on the substance in question and the frequency and duration of use, your doctor may recommend inpatient residential treatment or outpatient options.

In some cases, you may be able to go through this process at home, but you should always talk to your doctor first. Drug withdrawal can be life-threatening in some cases and requires professional intervention and medical monitoring.

Long-term treatments may involve the use of antidepressants, psychotherapy, and other medications to address symptoms of depression. Behavioral counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy, group therapy, contingency management, and support groups may all be helpful approaches when it comes to treating substance misuse problems.

If you need help with a substance or alcohol problem, you can contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) anytime for advice and referrals to treatment facilities and support groups in your area.

Complications of Other Illnesses

Chronic illness can also increase the risk of depression. In some cases, this may be because of the stress of coping with illness makes it more likely that a person will experience symptoms of depression. Some health conditions, such as stroke and Parkinson's disease, can cause changes in the brain that contribute to depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression can be common in people with illnesses including:

  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Cancer
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Epilepsy

Research suggests that depression can make co-existing illnesses harder to treat because if you're not feeling well emotionally, it's harder to comply with your treatment regimen. In addition, people with depression appear to be at greater risk of contracting certain illnesses, such as heart disease. All of these factors combined may put people at greater risk for dying from their illness than they otherwise would be if they did not have depression.

Further research is still needed to explore the connection between depression and other medical conditions. Some suggested theories include the fact that it may be more difficult for people with depression to take care of their health and they may have less access to medical care. Physiological changes such as increased inflammation and alterations in stress hormones may also play a role.

What to Do

Collaborative treatment options that address symptoms of depression, lifestyle, and physical illness can be effective at managing co-existing depression and chronic conditions. If you have a medical condition and are experiencing symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor. In some cases, such as if you have a thyroid condition, what you are feeling may actually be connected to your illness and treating the underlying condition may help relieve symptoms of depression.

Treatment options often involve the use of psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of both. One study found that both evidence-based psychotherapy and antidepressants were effective at treating symptoms of depression in individuals with co-occurring diabetes.

Poor Lifestyle Choices

If you're depressed, it's harder to make good lifestyle choices. You may not sleep or eat well, you may not get much exercise, or you may drink, smoke or use drugs. All of these factors can increase the risk for illness and poor health, which, in turn, makes a person more likely to die prematurely.

Depression is a mental disorder, but it also has a major impact on physical health and overall well-being. Potential complications can include:

  • Diabetes: Research suggests that people with depression are much more likely to develop diabetes, although it is not clear if one causes the other or vice versa. One study found that people who have both diabetes and depression are 82% more likely to have a heart attack.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Some studies suggest that nutritional deficiencies may contribute to depression and that dietary changes that are a symptom of depression may also lead to deficiencies, particularly in B vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Stress-related complications: Stress can contribute to symptoms of depression and depression can lead to increased stress. Stress can have a wide variety of negative health effects including sleep disturbances, anxiety, and decreased immunity. It can also trigger and aggravate other medical conditions.

Self-Help Strategies for Depression

Along with the individual treatment plan that you and your mental health professional develop to treat your depression, you can also employ some self-help strategies to help stave off feelings of sadness or emptiness. Here are some ideas:

  • Keep a journal
  • Walk or cuddle with your pet
  • Dance to your favorite music
  • Join a gym to get exercise, a natural mood booster, and make new friends
  • Paint, color or draw
  • Call a friend or close family member
  • Use relaxation techniques 

A Word From Verywell

When you're depressed, it can seem like your life will never get better and nothing will ever help, but that's not the case. Depression is highly treatable with medication such as antidepressants, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms, but always reach out to emergency services immediately if you are in immediate danger.

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