The science of the brain, understanding depression

Severe depression and thoughts of suicide are affecting teenagers now, more than ever before. In our special series, Dark Series, we're studying how mental illness is affecting our youth and what is actually happening in the brain, when depression sets in. 

Depression can hurt so badly, anyone who has suffered from it can tell you, it feels like physical pain.  Now for the first time, doctors are learning that physical changes are often present in the brain, when someone is depressed. 

Tough emotions, like feeling dark, lonely, and hopeless.  Jacob Johns has battled those feelings for years.  It got so bad, the 11th grader at Conroe High School wanted to take his own life four different times. "I had no friends at school, I was just so alone. No one was going to talk to me at all. It was tough, you know, at the time, I just felt like there was nothing to live for," explains Jacob.

Dr. Cory Walker is a Psychiatrist and Internist at Menninger Clinic, who’s life’s work is to help those suffering in their darkest hour.  She wants you to understand that physical evidence does show up on a brain scan, when someone is struggling mentally.  "We can see that in imaging studies, but unfortunately right now it’s not widely available," says Dr. Walker. 

Doctors know that when connections are off in the brain, depression sets in.    Severe cases can lead to feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. The brain sends wrong signals, that the mind understands correctly and acts on, but it’s bad information. So the behavior looks strange, the mood is off, personality is off. 

Research shows that a part of the brain called the hippocampus is smaller in many people who are depressed. "There is a subset of people that can struggle with suicidal ideation and suicide, suicide attempts.  We do see differences in the brain.  There are parts, especially on the right side of the brain, that are smaller, there are more connections between the emotional parts of the brain and the reactive parts of the brain and not as many connections to the part that puts on the brakes and says, let’s think about this," explains Dr. Walker. 

She goes on to say, that someone who is depressed often either has too much, or not enough, Serotonin. It's known as the "happy chemical", since it helps with well-being and happiness. Something as simple as a vitamin deficiency can also lead to mental health problems.

"When we see people here, we check all those vitamin levels, we look for that.  Low B12 can also contribute to anemia, which contributes to low energy, which contributes to depression. So there's a huge overlap between physical illnesses and mental illnesses. I would argue that there's only one kind of illness, illnesses that humans suffer from," says Dr. Walker. She also explains, mental illness and suicidal thoughts also tend to run in families.  It did for Jacob. 

"It started when my father said he was going to commit suicide to me. when I was age 14," he states.  

Our genetic make-up affects the brain, like any other body part, and some genes can alter someone's biology and cause their mood to be unstable. Traumatic childhood events can also permanently alter the brain chemistry and affect mood.  Abandonment is one of them.  "At the time, I had nothing to live for.  I felt like my family members didn’t care about me. I felt like nothing was important in my life anymore," says Jacob. 

Dr. Walker says it could also be caused by something like physical or sexual abuse or witnessing a violent crime. "People who have suffered adverse childhood events, who don't die by suicide in childhood, but they grow into adults, also have derangements in the stress system in the body where they have changes in the stress hormone and how reactive they are to it. And people who do not suffer from adverse childhood events do not have that change," says Dr. Walker. 

While we've only recently learned that mental illness physically changes the brain, so does treatment. Jacob says it sure has helped him.

Dr. Walker further explains, medications and therapy don't just  make someone feel better, they help brain connections recover and heal the brain. That can give someone new hope and provide them with more reasons to want to be alive. 

It's important to know there are plenty of resources available to help anyone with thoughts about suicide. 

Here’s a link to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s list of risk factors and warning signs.

If you or someone you know struggles with suicidal thoughts, you can call The Harris Center Crisis Line at 713-970-7000 (Option 1).

Resources to get help