ROBERT WHITSON, PH.D.
I was a police officer for 30 years, I’ve taught Criminal Justice for 14 years, and I’ve dealt with Major Depression Disorder for 18 years. The purpose of this article is to describe my experience with Major Depression, which may assist police officers who are experiencing symptoms of depression, or know someone with depression.
As Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I loved my wife and was happily married. We were financially secure, enjoyed doing things together, and had a promising future. I loved our dogs and horses on our farm that had a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains. I loved my job as a supervisor in our Drug Task Force, which is an assignment I always wanted. I exercised every day, didn’t smoke or drink, and was in relatively good shape. I was 48 years old and life was great. I didn’t know my life would drastically change.
I started waking up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep. Every morning I woke up with a tension headache. I occasionally had migraines, but the tension headaches were different. It felt like my head was in a vice. Constant pressure. Remember the last time you had a painful headache and think about living with that every day.
Some days were better than others, and summer was better than winter, but my symptoms got progressively worse. My muscles were as tight as cement. They ached all the time, especially in my back and neck. Some days my joints ached. Simple tasks became major struggles. I felt like I was always running up hill. No energy. My mind was in a dense fog and it was difficult to concentrate. I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I had low self-esteem. I was miserable.
My doctor said I had Major Depression. Major Depression? I didn’t have any reason to be depressed. Everything in my life was great. I thought he was crazy!!! He wanted me to take Prozac. No way was I taking Prozac, or any antidepressant. Crazy people take Prozac. I made jokes about people taking “Meds.” I wasn’t one of “those” people. I discarded his diagnosis and ignored his advice.
I studied medical books every day for the next two years. I was determined to find out what was wrong with me and I knew it wasn’t depression. I had a Saturday Night Live sense of humor and loved to laugh, but the laughter was gone. I thought I would never laugh again. I was emotionally numb. Nothing made me happy. I wasn’t suicidal, but I constantly thought about death. I was in complete denial. I reached a point of desperation and despair.
That’s when I finally returned to my doctor and agreed to try an antidepressant. Fortunately, the medication worked for me. At least to some degree. It relieved the physical symptoms and I managed to live a relatively normal life for several years.
Fast forward a few years. I retired from the police department and was teaching college students as an adjunct while working on my Ph.D. My depression took a sinister turn. My wife became seriously ill with an undiagnosed condition. Her father died and she was taking care of her mother. I was under a great deal of pressure trying to finish my dissertation. At that point, I had invested five years of my life and $90,000 to achieve my Ph.D., with no end in sight. It was winter. Cold, bleak, dark, dreary, lifeless winter. I viewed life through a negative, Murphy’s Law, glass-is-empty, depression-laced lens. I was under a great deal of stress and I cracked like Humpty Dumpty.
In my Major Depression state of mind, I made a life changing decision to get divorced. I reached a point where I just didn’t care anymore. It’s hard to care about someone else when you’re miserable. And, of course, I blamed my wife, even though she was a great person. I was willing to throw away all the things in life that gave me pleasure. All the things I loved. My wife, my home, my financial security, my dogs, my horses, and my personal property. It didn’t matter anymore.
This is what Major Depression did to me. Nothing mattered. Even though I wasn’t suicidal, I understand how people reach the point of suicide, or, in some cases – homicide.
Statistics and Research
In 2016, there were 44,965 reported suicides, which is a rate of 13.42 per 100,000 residents. About 9.8 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, with 2.8 million planning it, and 1.3 million actually attempting suicide. White males accounted for 7 of every 10 suicides. The highest age rate is between 45 and 54 years old (CDC, 2018).
During 2017, at least 140 police officers committed suicide, compared to 129 officers who died in the line of duty. The suicide rate for officers is 17 per 100,000 officers (Heyman, Dill, Douglas, et al., 2018).
About 11% of males and 21% of females will experience Major Depression during their life, with about 7% having Major Depression during a given year (Carreon and Gold, 2018).
Approximately 25 million Americans have been taking antidepressants for at least two years, with about 15.5 million Americans taking them at least five years (Carey and Gebeloff, 2018).
According to Dr. Charles Nemeroff, from the University of Miami, as cited by Carreon and Gold (2018), depression effects a person’s entire body and increases the risks for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, due to increased inflammation. There also appears to be a connection between inflammation, stress, and the immune system.
Dr. Andrew Miller (2018), from Emory University, found that many depressed people have inflammation in the regions of their brains that may correspond with suicidal thoughts. This condition appears to have a connection to stress. Pariante (2018), conducted a meta-analysis of seven studies that supported the hypothesis of inflammation in the brains of most people with Major Depression, which is associated with the immune system.
Dr. Robert Sapolsky (2015), from Stanford University, conducted numerous studies with baboons regarding stress and its neuroscience effect on the brain. There is a positive correlation between stress (cortisol) and Major Depression.
Dr. Stephen Illardi, from the University of Kansas, studied stress and depression. “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food-laden, sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life.”
Dr. Chris Aiken (2018), from Wake Forest University, studied the relationship between gut flora, neurotransmitters associated with depression (dopamine & serotonin), inflammation, stress, and mental disorders. There is a correlation between the digestive system and mental health. Some strains of probiotics (Bifidobacterium lactis bb-12 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG) seem to reduce depression.
Biological and environmental factors contribute to Major Depression. It’s estimated that 40% of depression comes from biological (hereditary) factors. Each person has about 100 billion neurons and 3.2 billion base pairs of DNA. In the world’s largest DNA study to date, over 200 researchers studied 480,000 participants and identified 44 gene variants that increase the risk of depression (Lewis & Breen (2018), as cited by Sample (2018).
Moschiano, D’Amico, Canavero, Pan, Micieli, and Bussone (2011) published a literature review of numerous studies that linked migraine headaches with depression.
My Thoughts About Depression
Major Depression can ruin a person’s life. If you’re experiencing symptoms of Major Depression, consult with a physician (psychiatrist) who has experience treating depression. Don’t be in denial. There is a simple questionnaire called the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), that you can take for information.
Depression has different levels of severity. There are different types of antidepressants. Medications help the majority of patients, but don’t work for everyone. Consult with your doctor and evaluate the risks-verses-the-benefits of taking medication. I can’t tell you what to do. Medication relieved my tight muscles, tension headaches, joint pain, and sleep disorder.
Depression is a complicated combination of biological and environmental factors, involving the monoamine neurotransmitters of serotonin, dopamine, and norephinephrine (adrenaline). In short, nobody knows the exact etiology of Major Depression, but it’s a very real physical illness within the brain, just like other physical illnesses of the body.
If you’re a police officer dealing with someone experiencing Major Depression, the best advice I have is to offer the person hope. Tell the person medications are available, as well as alternative treatments available through their doctor. The worst advice is to tell someone to be alone and think about their life. A depressed person left alone will dwell on their problems and negative thoughts.
Even though some psychologists will disagree, don’t tell a depressed person to “think happy thoughts.” This is like telling someone with a broken leg to run a mile. Doesn’t work. A depressed person may make bad decisions without realizing their thought process is flawed. If you know someone who is depressed, advise the person to delay any life-changing decisions.
If you’re a police officer experiencing Major Depression, should you tell your supervisor and/or other officers? It’s been my experience that most people don’t understand depression. It’s also been my experience that police officers are highly critical of each other, especially when it comes to competitive processes for promotions and special assignments. Therefore, the question becomes, “Do you want to expose yourself to criticism for taking medication, which may hinder your career?”
If you want more information about depression, a good place to start is the American Psychiatric Association’s (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition.
Aiken, C. (2018). Probiotics lower rehospitalization rates in bipolar disorder. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved from http://psychiatrictimes.com/bipolar-disorder/probiotics-lower-re. . .
Atchley, R. & Ilardi, S. (2007). The promise of cognitive neuroscience for advancing depression research. Cognitive Therapy Research, 31, 141-145. doi 10.1007/s10608-006-9117-7.
Benedict, C. & Gebeloff, R. (2018, April 7). Many people taking antidepressants discover they cannot quit. The New York Times. Retrieved from https:///nytimes.com/2018/04/07/health/antidepressants-withdrawal-prozac-cymbalta.htlm.
Campeau, S. (2017). Stress,neural plasticity, and major depression. Psychiatric Times, 34(12). Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/cme/stress-neural-plasticity-and-maj. . .
Carreon, D. & Gold, J. (2018). Depression: A killing disease. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/major-depressive-disorder/depressio. . . Centers for Disease Control (2018). Preventing suicide. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicide-factsheet.pdf.
Heyman, M., Dill, J., and Douglas, R. (2018). Ruderman white paper on mental health and suicide of first responders. Retrieved from https://issuu.com/rudermanfoundation/docs/first_responder_white_paper_final_ac270d53f8bfb.
Ilardi, S. (2018). Ted Talk. Retrieved from http://psych.ku.edu/tlc1.
Miller, A, (2018). Five things to know about inflammation and depression. Psychiatric Times, 35(4). Retrieved from http://psychiatrictimes.com/special-reports/five-things-know-ab. . .
Moschiano, F., D’Amico, D., Canavero, I., Pan, I., Micieli, G., & Bussone, G. (2011). Migraine And depression: common pathogenetic and therapeutic ground? Neurological Science, 32(Suppl 1):S85-S88. doi 10.1007/s10072-011-0545-0.
Pariante, C. (2018). Why are depressed patients inflamed? A new path to personalized treatment in psychiatry. Psychiatric Times, 35(5). Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/special-reports/why-are-depressed-p . . .
Sample, I. (2018). Gene map for depression sparks hopes of new generation of treatments. The Guardian. Retried from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/apr/26/gene-map-for-depr. . .
Sapolsky, R. (2015). Stress and the brain: individual variability and the inverted-U. Nature Neuroscience, 18(10) 1344-1346. doi: 10.1038/nn.4109.