FAQ: What Are the Dangers of Untreated Depression?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What are the dangers of untreated depression?

Expert Answer

Kenneth Robbins, M.D., is a senior medical editor of Caring.com. He is board certified in psychiatry and internal medicine, has a master's in public health from the University of Michigan, and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current clinical practice focuses primarily on geriatrics. He has written and contributed to many articles and is frequently invited to speak on psychiatric topics, such as psychiatry and the law, depression, anxiety, dementia, and suicide risk and prevention.

Concerns about symptoms of depression should always be taken seriously. Depression causes significant disabilities and problems of many different kinds:

  • At its simplest, someone who's depressed and doesn't get proper treatment goes through life needlessly in pain. This pain for many is even more intense than physical pain, but unfortunately a part of depression is a hopelessness that often keeps people from seeking the help they need.

  • Depression alters the ability to function effectively and efficiently. You don't think clearly, have trouble concentrating, and become more forgetful. This can have a noticeable impact on your job or on relationships -- such as the ability to be an effective caregiver or even the ability to continue to keep a loved one at home. You can make mistakes that endanger the care receiver's life -- or your own.

  • Depression puts one at risk for an ever-longer list of health conditions, including dementia, new research is revealing. Depressed people have a compromised immune system, which can make them more vulnerable to a virus or even cancer. Depressed people take longer to recover from heart surgeries, and if they have chronic conditions such as diabetes or lung disease, these seem to worsen.

  • Untreated depression subjects those we love and care about to our negative or anxious feelings, dark moods, and inability to engage -- unpleasant experiences that also tend to rub off on others. So choosing not to address depression and become whole affects not just your own life but the lives of those closest to you.

  • The ultimate complication of untreated depression is suicide. As many as 90 percent of those who commit suicide are clinically depressed, have a substance-abuse problem, or both, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. That's because untreated depression itself alters the way one thinks; it becomes hard to see any bright spots or any end to the emotional pain. In addition, in an effort to ease the pain, many people with depression self-medicate with alcohol, which can actually exacerbate the depression and lower inhibitions, increasing the risk for suicide.