Untreated depression can endanger more than your mental health

You may brush it off as a case of the blues or something that will resolve when your circumstances improve, or you may not want to get help because of the stigma attached, but leaving depression untreated can harm more than just your ability to enjoy life.

Untreated depression has a wide range of effects, some physical, some mental, some relational – many can create long-term or life-threatening problems.

In fact, the World Health Organisation lists depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide, which underlines its seriousness. Worldwide, there has been a 20 percent increase in depression in the past 20 years. Almost 75 percent of people with mental disorders remain untreated in developing countries, a problem shared by South Africa, where mental health is not prioritised.

Although depression symptoms can vary, the most common are persistent sadness, irritability or anxiety, trouble sleeping, a loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities and an inability to carry out daily activities for two weeks or more. Untreated, the symptoms of depression can last for months or even years.

Depression and Suicide

The most dangerous risk of untreated depression is suicide. It is estimated that two thirds of all suicides are caused by depression. In South Africa, there are thought to be at least 23 suicides a day due to depression. One in four teens in South Africa have attempted suicide. If you have suicidal thoughts or intentions, get help immediately. It is not the only way out.

Depression and Substance Abuse

Symptoms rarely go away if they are not treated. This means people with depression often turn to drugs or alcohol to treat their symptoms. This can worsen depression symptoms and increase the chances of getting addicted to the substances. Alcohol, drugs and depression are a dangerous combination, which is why it is so important to get help.

Depression and reckless behaviour

Depression increases the risk of risky behaviour. When people are feel hopeless, angry or down they are less to worry about the consequences of their actions. They are more likely to put themselves in risky situations with potentially dangerous outcomes, for example, driving drunk or unprotected sex.

Depression and impaired cognitive performance 

Untreated depression can make it very difficult to keep to a normal work schedule or to get through tasks at school or work. This is because depression actually impairs cognitive function; it impairs the ability to concentrate as well as memory. For some people, even getting out of bed is can be difficult.

Relationship Problems

Depression can cause relationships to suffer. It can leave people exhausted emotionally, mentally and physically, so it becomes hard to interact positively with friends and family.

Health Concerns 

Depression can become an unhealthy cycle. Because people with depression lose interest in many things, they may find it difficult to take care of themselves in terms of healthy eating and exercise, which ultimately leads to them feeling worse or being vulnerable to other illnesses.

A number of studies have been done on depression and physical health and there is mounting evidence that clinical depression can have a serious effect on physical health, for example:

Depression and Heart Disease: studies show that depression can lead to heart disease, worsen it or make it difficult to recover after complications of heart disease. Depression and stress are closely related and chronic stress put your body in a constant state of emergency which can cause blood vessels to tighten. This can lead to heart disease over time. Poor lifestyle habits that often go along with depression such as poor diet, drinking or smoking are also bad for heart health. 

Depression and Diabetes: The same bad habits can also increase your risk for type 2 diabetes, or make it difficult to manage diabetes. Depression plays a significant role in appetite and nutrition. Some people with depression may overeat and some may lose their appetite altogether. Overeating can lead obesity-related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes.

Depression and Obesity: There is a higher risk of obesity if you are depressed and if you are obese there is a higher risk of being depressed. This is, in part, because eating is a form of self-medication when feeling depressed. Depression may also cause stress and stress hormones have been shown to promote belly fat.

Depression and immune system: Some studies show that depression may have a negative effect on the immune system, which can make people more vulnerable to infections and diseases and encourage faster tumour growth in cases where people have cancer.

Depression and Mental Decline: Studies have shown that long-term depression can add to the loss of brainpower, especially in elderly people. Brain scans of elderly people show greater shrinkage in certain parts of the brain in people with depression, compared to elderly people without depression.

Depression and Pain: Pain and depression can perpetuate an unhealthy cycle. Depression can make pain harder to treat and pain may make depression worse. For example, if you have chronic depression you are three times more likely to experience migraine headaches. 

Just as there are many negative consequences to leaving depression untreated, there are many benefits of early and appropriate treatment. Early detection and intervention decreases the risk of major depression, promotes remission, helps

prevent relapse and reduces the emotional and physical consequences of the disease. 


Bronwyn Harries-Jones is a journalist with 22 years’ experience in the field.  She has freelanced  as both a journalist, advertising copywriter, editor and communications manager for many years, working for publications such as The Sunday Times and consumer magazines, with communication’s clients including Old Mutual, South African Tourism and Verizon. She has a particular passion for mental health research, having suffered from post-natal depression for two years after the birth of her first child.

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