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Mental Health

Spinal Cord Injury and Depression

Navigating and managing depression that may result from spinal cord injury begins with recognising its signs and understanding the importance of it being treated.

by: KMT May, 2021 5 min read

Periods of sadness are common after experiencing spinal cord injury. However, these are different from depression, which is a serious medical condition. Understanding the difference can help those living with an SCI to manage both

For the survivor of a spinal cord injury, it is not uncommon to experience periods of sadness. Sadness, however, should not be confused with depression, which is a much more serious medical condition. To better understand the difference, it helps to take a closer look at what exactly depression is.

Spinal cord injury and depression

Unlike “feeling blue” or “down in the dumps”, depression is a serious medical disorder that can have a tremendous effect on a person’s thoughts, feelings and physical and daily activities.

Now, the exact causes of depression are not completely known. However, we do know that life stresses and medical problems like spinal cord injury can cause a change in levels of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemical imbalances are linked to many physical and emotional changes that the SCI patient may experience.

Some of the symptoms of depression include, but are not limited to: changes in sleep; feelings of hopelessness; loss of interest or pleasure in activities; changes in appetite; diminished energy; difficulty in concentrating or making decisions; feelings of worthlessness; and thoughts of death or suicide.

The good news for spinal cord injury survivors is that depression can almost always be treated with counselling, antidepressant medications, physical activity or a combination of any of these.

Counselling – specifically that which includes cognitive-behavioural therapy – has proven to be particularly effective for SCI patients experiencing depression. This type of therapy is based on the idea that depression improves when people are more engaged in meaningful activities, which helps them regain positive beliefs about themselves, their world and their future. As an SCI patient, this would mean working together with a therapist to find and resume activities that are important to you by helping you to overcome physical and mental barriers that may be preventing you from doing them. It’s a way to help you recognise the dangers of negative thinking, whilst reinforcing the effects of positive thinking and action.

As stated above, we know there is a direct connection between depression and certain chemical imbalances in the brain. Antidepressant medications help to restore this balance, leading the sufferer of depression to feel better both emotionally and physically. They are not addictive and when used in combination with counselling, prove quite effective in controlling depression.

The important point to remember is that depression is not a given, even for people with severe spinal cord injury. As a matter of fact, most SCI patients do not experience depression. However, if you feel you are experiencing symptoms of depression, knowing that it is both treatable and beatable makes it easier to reach out to physicians, neurologists, psychiatrists or others on your rehabilitation team who can start treatment or refer you to mental health professionals as needed. 

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