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Depression is different in everyone who suffers from it. The most common symptoms are changes in eating and sleeping habits, anxiety, guilt, a loss of interest in work or other activities, a depressive mood and thoughts of suicide.

“It’s important to keep in mind that depression is not just normal sadness,” said Dr. Carlos Zarate, a psychiatrist with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). “It’s a state where you have significant distress, you might have impairment in your ability to enjoy things or to experience pleasure.”

A Harvard-educated psychiatrist, Dr. Zarate specializes in neuro-psychopharmacology and is the chief of experimental therapeutic treatment at NIMH.

“We are working on developing the next generation of treatment by trying to understand the causes and biology of depression,” Zarate said. “We are looking for treatments that work in a couple of hours so we can minimize depressive episodes and allow people to get on with their lives.”

Medication is the most common treatment for severe cases, while psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is equally and sometimes more effective in mild to moderate cases. While clinical depression is a combination of genetics, mental factors and environment, Zarate says, the good news for athletes is that NIMH studies have shown exercise to be effective in treating milder cases of clinical depression.

“Like Miracle Gro can grow your plants, there are growth factors in the brain that can make the neurons stronger. Athletes who keep in shape might have more protective factors in their bodies.”

There is no cure for clinical depression or bipolar disorder, but new treatments can dramatically improve the quality of life for those affected.

“Our goal is to reduce the impairment on one’s life, comparable to a medicine that could control malignant hypertension or sugar in a diabetic within hours, instead of days or weeks,” Zarate said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Misunderstood disease

One of the toughest problems for athletes who suffer from depression is that it’s often mistaken for something else, such as laziness or a lack of discipline.

In a culture where being tough and aggressive is part of the job description, being diagnosed with clinical depression cannot only come as a surprise to a professional athlete, it’s often met with denial.

Some of the most well-known athletes who have battled depression include Ken Griffey Jr., Terry Bradshaw, Jerry West, Mike Tyson, Ricky Williams and Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest). World Peace and Holdsclaw are outspoken mental health advocates and have supported one another’s struggles. They are lifelong friends who grew up together in Queensbridge, N.Y.

For D.C. native and former Mystics player Nikki Teasley, the battle against anxiety and depression began during a difficult upbringing in Southeast and manifested itself during her junior year at North Carolina when Teasley announced to her coach that she “didn’t want to be herself anymore.”

Diagnosed with anxiety and depression, Teasley sat out the 2000-01 season while being treated with therapy and anti-depressants.

“I wasn’t doing well academically, basketball wasn’t going great, my social life wasn’t the greatest,” Teasley said. “I started thinking of ways to hurt myself. Not necessarily suicide, but messing up my ankle or taking some pills and putting myself out of commission for a month or six weeks. Then I thought, ‘Whoa, this is bad.’”

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