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Dealing with Depression

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Marjorie and Ann were housemates for about three years. Everyone thought that they did not like each other very much. Direct support staff said that they did not have much in common. Recently, Ann moved out of the house to be closer to her parents. About two weeks after she moved out, staff started to notice some changes in Marjorie. She wasn’t eating as much. She cried at times during the day. She seemed upset for no apparent reason. Staff became worried and made an appointment with Marjorie’s doctor. Her health was fine. Staff were asked to list any recent changes in Marjorie’s life. Everyone quickly realized that Ann’s leaving was probably the reason for the changes in Marjorie’s behavior. Staff made an appointment with a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, after reviewing the staff’s observations and talking with Marjorie, diagnosed her as having depression.

What is depression?

Everyone feels sad at one time or another. But if a person has been feeling "down" for more than a few weeks or is having trouble getting through the day, they may be experiencing more than just the "blues." They may be suffering from a common but serious medical illness called depression. One out of every five people experience depression during their lives. Depression:

  • Can last a long time - more than two weeks - and doesn’t go away by itself
  • Can make it hard for people to get through the day
  • Is often related to difficult things that happen in life
  • May run in families
  • Can lead people to hurt themselves or even commit suicide

Here are some facts about depression and people with developmental disabilities.

  • One person out of five suffers from depression at some point in their lives. People with developmental disabilities suffer from depression at least as often as people without developmental disabilities.
  • Depression lowers a person’s ability to enjoy life.
  • Depression can lead to poor health.
  • It can be hard to recognize signs of depression in someone with developmental disabilities, especially if they do not communicate well.
  • There may be people with developmental disabilities who need help for depression, but do not get help because they are unable to communicate how they feel.

There are several types of depression:

Major depression interferes with everyday life. This kind of depression can change how people sleep, eat, and feel about themselves. Major depression can also make it hard for a person to concentrate, work, socialize, or enjoy life events. A person may suffer from major depression once, get better, and never become depressed again. But many people feel depressed on and off for their whole lives. Without help, major depression can lead to heart disease, alcohol or drug abuse, and suicide.

Dysthymia is less severe than major depression, but Dysthmia can still keep a person from feeling well and meeting the challenges of everyday life. Dysthmia also tends to last longer than major depression.

Bipolar Disorder (manic-depressive illness) often makes a person change very rapidly, from feeling depressed and doing very little, to feeling very happy and having a very high level of activity (mania). Bipolar disorder affects how people act and think and can lead people to make bad decisions.

Seasonal Affective Disorder causes a person to feel very sad during times of the year when there is less natural sunlight—in the winter, for example. People with Seasonal Affective Disorder normally feel better in the spring and summer.

How can you tell when people with developmental disabilities have depression?

People with developmental disabilities may not be able to talk about their moods or explain why they feel sad. As a direct support provider, it is important for you to pay attention to any changes in a person’s behavior. If a person does not communicate well, to know that they feel depressed, you must observe what they do. The table on the next page lists symptoms of depression in people with developmental disabilities.

Symptoms and Behaviors of Depression

Symptoms Changes in Behaviors You Might Observe
Being in a depressed (sad) mood Cries or moans for long periods of time
Seems to cry without reason
Smiles or laughs less than usual
Has a sad facial expression
Whines and complains often
Acting bad-tempered or aggressive more often than usual Has an angry expression
Yells, screams, or swears
Spits at others
Tries to injure self
Acting tired or not having any energy Spends more time sitting or lying down
Has trouble getting out of bed in the morning
Sleeping more or less than normal Sleeps more than 11 hours a night
Takes long naps or naps frequently
Wakes up earlier than usual
Has trouble falling asleep
Wakes up in the middle of the night
Having a change in weight or appetite Refuses to eat or eats more than usual
Sudden big increase or decrease in weight
Steals food
Is disruptive at meal times
Losing interest in activities Doesn't participate in favorite activities
Doesn't seem to enjoy activities
Spends more time alone than usual
Refuses most work or social activities
Acting worried, troubled or very slow to respond Doesn't sit down
Paces or walks rapidly
Stops talking or talks more slowly than usual
Moves very slowly
Talking about death or suicide Talks about people who have died
Threatens to kill self
Shows a strong interest in violent movies or television shows
Feeling worthless Statements like “I'm no good for anyone.”
Spends more time alone
Pushes other people away
Finding it hard to think or concentrate Can't focus on work or an activity
Is easily distracted
Has memory loss
Doesn't get as much done at work
Has trouble taking care of self


These are examples of things that may lead to depression.

Life Events Examples
Loss The death of a loved one
Breaking up with someone or getting a divorce
Losing a job
Stress Being the victim of abuse
Being the victim of a crime
Having problems with friends, including fights
Having family problems
Problems with money
Problems at work or in school
Drug or alcohol abuse
Loss of control due to physical or other limitations Long term illness or injury
Needing assistance from others
Loss of independence
Loss of self-confidence
Feeling a lack of control over one's own life
Social limitations Difficulty expressing oneself
Finding it hard to get a job or earn money
Having difficulty making friends

What should I do if I believe a person I support is depressed?

Everyone agreed that John seemed to be depressed. He looked sad. He woke up a lot at night. He lost weight, and it was hard to get him involved in activities. According to his doctor, he didn’t have any physical problems. John is nonverbal and no one could figure out what was wrong. The consulting psychologist suggested a plan. He knew John liked to hang out with the young men who support him at home and that he liked to lift weights. One of the support staff agreed to take John to the gym five days a week to lift weights and use other equipment. Within a month, John was sleeping through the night and eating regularly. Everyone agreed that he looks happier.

Generally, a person should visit a doctor if they experience symptoms of depression for longer than two weeks or if their symptoms are serious enough to disrupt their daily routine. However, it can take a long time to notice symptoms of depression in people with developmental disabilities. Changes in behavior related to depression (for example, eating or sleeping less, forgetting to take medication, etc.) may have serious effects on a person’s health. As a direct support provider, it’s important for you to act quickly if you think a person you support is depressed.

  • Encourage the person to talk to you. Help them to explain how they feel. Ask about what is happening in their life. Pay attention and be supportive. Take what they say seriously; be careful not to dismiss any of the feelings they describe. Be alert for any signs that they may be thinking of hurting themselves (for example, talking about death).
  • If someone is nonverbal, watch them more carefully. Prepare for a doctor’s visit by writing down their symptoms or changes in behavior. Note when the changes first appeared. Report anything that has changed recently in the person’s life.
  • Make an appointment with the person’s primary doctor. Some physical conditions and some medications can cause symptoms similar to depression. A doctor will be able to rule out physical or medical causes. He or she may recommend a visit to a psychiatrist or psychologist.

How can depression be treated?

Counseling or Psychotherapy

Talking regularly with a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker can help a person deal with depression. “Talk” therapy may help a person express their feelings. They may identify reasons why they have been sad. The counselor may suggest ways to avoid or change bad thoughts. Counseling can also help people change the way they act. People may feel better about themselves. They may learn new ways to solve problems and relate to others.

Behavioral Approach

For individuals who are nonverbal, talk therapy may not work. A behavioral approach may work better. This can include scheduling more physical and social activities that the person enjoys. Family, friends, and support staff may encourage them to participate.


Depression may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Medication can sometimes relieve symptoms. A doctor may prescribe antidepressants combined with other types of therapy. It’s important to make sure the person you support keeps taking their antidepressant medication - even if they begin feeling better - until a doctor says it’s okay to stop.

Antidepressants may cause serious side effects. As a support provider, if you see any change in a person’s health or behavior soon after they begin taking antidepressants, you should report the change to the person’s doctor immediately. For example, you should report insomnia, dizziness, dry mouth, constipation, nausea, agitation or other mood changes. You should also tell a doctor if you notice that a person’s ability to function changed after they began taking an antidepressant.

How can I help the people I support deal with depression?

Talking is one of the best ways to deal with feelings of sadness that come with depression. Encourage the people you support to talk to someone they know and trust (for example, family members, friends, or a doctor). If they are non-verbal, observe their daily routine and look for changes.

  • Friends help a person to feel better about him/herself and handle hard situations. Find ways for people you support to take part in social activities and develop friendships.
  • Find out about local support or advocacy groups for people who have developmental disabilities or similar life situations. For example, help someone who has lost a loved one find a grief counseling group.
  • Exercise is a great way to help someone feel better. Even light exercise – like walking – can help.
  • Participating in enjoyable activities or hobbies helps a person feel better. This is also a way to develop new friendships.
  • Help the people you support focus on small tasks to finish each day and each week. Encourage positive thinking and show them that you think positively.
  • Discourage a person from making important decisions while they are depressed (for example, moving or quitting a job).
  • If a person you support has a treatment plan from a doctor, help him or her follow it, paying special attention to making sure they take their medications.

Here are some additional resources about depression:

  • Depression and Disability: A Practical Guide
  • Let’s Talk About Depression – Developmental Disabilities Health Alliance
  • Depression in People with Intellectual Disabilities
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Last updated on Fri, 05/28/2010 - 10:27