I was in grade 10 when I was first diagnosed with mental illness. Walking nervously into the psychiatrist’s office for an official diagnosis, I already had a pretty good idea of what kinds of mental illnesses I suffered from. I knew about anxiety, and the words ‘body dysmorphic disorder’ had been floating around in my mind after a couple of Google searches, so fifteen-year old me was basically an expert on the subject. After an hour or so of talking to the psychiatrist and answering her questions, she diagnosed me with a trio of mental illnesses. The first two didn’t surprise me. I did in fact have anxiety and body dysmorphic disorder. However, the third one I had never heard of before. She said I had something called dysthymia, a low-grade, but persistent and chronic form of depression.
Dysthymia is a mood disorder that has a few different names, including dysthymic disorder, chronic depression, and as of recently, persistent depressive disorder. Some common symptoms are similar to other forms of depression, such as having low energy and motivation to accomplish things. However, unlike other forms of depression, these symptoms are constant, while other forms may have significant high and low mood periods. Another symptom is a loss of interest and pleasure in performing day-to-day tasks, or even activities that used to be enjoyable. Withdrawal is also common in people with dysthymia, whether it be from social situations, opportunities, or everyday life. Other symptoms include low self-esteem, a change in sleeping patterns, changes in appetite, and concentration issues. An official dysthymia diagnosis by a mental health professional is very specific. In general, symptoms must be consistent for at least two years, with none of them disappearing for more than two months at a time.
And while Statistics Canada reports that around 3 to 6% of of all adults will experience dysthymic disorder, many people with the disorder aren’t diagnosed. This is due to the chronic nature of the illness. Those affected may interpret their dysthymia as simple pessimism or a gloomy attitude towards life, and that they’ve always been this way. They don’t remember a time when their symptoms didn’t affect their lives. This is especially the case with child or adolescent diagnoses. For example, I’ve always considered myself to have low energy and be kind of a downer, while my family can recall the fun-loving, energetic child that I used to be. To them I seem unlike myself, but in my mind, this is how I’ve always been.
Treatment options for dysthymia are similar to treatment options for other forms of depression, with SSRIs and antidepressant medications often suggested. Many forms of therapy have also shown to be beneficial, including cognitive-behavioural therapy, talk therapy, and even support groups. Like every mental illness, everyone is different, and may need to try several different medications, therapies, and other forms of help to see any sort of improvement in their lives.
One way that I like to describe dysthymia to make it easier for others to understand is to compare it to the weather. Dysthymia is like a constant overcast. It’s always cloudy. On bad days, sometimes it rains, and sometimes it thunderstorms. On better days the sun can peek through, some days brighter than others. Some days the sky is filled with dark, menacing storm clouds. Other times the clouds are white, puffy, and plentiful. But no matter what, come rain or shine, there are always clouds. For as long as you can remember, the sky has had clouds. Your family may recount times where they would be able to see nothing but clear, blue sky. You may not believe them, but you take their word for it, because on better days you can see more sky than usual. The clouds are always there, but so is the sky. Dysthymia is always there, but so are you.
About Maddie Katz
Maddie Katz is a recent college graduate. Her interest in mental health started when she was diagnosed in high school. Her other interests lie in writing, music, theatre, and cats.