Shawn Colvin's Battle Against the Blues

Grammy-winning singer encourages others to fight, and overcome, depression

TUESDAY, Oct. 25, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- In "Trouble," a cut from her 1997 Grammy-nominated album A Few Small Repairs, pop-folk singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin captures the kind of leaden emotions that can grab a person and not let go.

"Now I know the business of the heart/," she sings, "And it'll get you anyway it can/You need someone to walk with in the dark, well,/I'm your man."

For most of her 47 years, Colvin said, she's been battling against depression's darkness, first experienced as far back as childhood but only diagnosed and treated when she was 19.

"I've dealt with it on and off since then, and began treatment in earnest again in 1989," said Colvin, who's taken home three Grammys in her career so far -- once in 1991 for Best Contemporary Folk Album (Steady On), then twice in 1998, when she won Record and Song of the Year for the hit Sunny Came Home -- a song centered on a heroine who burns down her own house, determined to start again, "out there on her own."

Luckily for Colvin, fighting depression hasn't involved anything nearly so dramatic.

"Drugs have improved vastly since I was 19 and I've tried several -- the one I'm using now that works really well for me is Wellbutrin XL. I take it once a day, it's simple," said the singer, who was born in Carbondale, Ill., but has called Austin, Texas, home for the past 10 years. She lives there with her 7-year-old daughter, Caledonia.

According to Colvin, being an artist has played a big role in her decision to speak out about depression.

"I think there's a misconception that if one is an artist and, like myself, sings sad or sensitive material, that you're risking losing that if you treat depression," she said. "But when I've been seriously biologically depressed I'm actually unable to do anything."

"In fact, being treated for depression restores me to be able to do what I do," Colvin explained. "So, for people who are familiar with my music and like it, they should know that 90 percent of my recorded work has been done while I've been taking medicine for depression."

The singer's experience rang true for depression expert Dr. Norman Sussman, a professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.

"There are some people who are so depressed they can't bring themselves to do anything -- shower, take out the garbage, things like that. They may sleep all the time," he said. For others, the signs of depression may be more subtle, including a general disinterest in activities they used to love, an increase in morbid thoughts of death or suicide, or an exaggerated sense of guilt over one's actions.

"The key is that it persists -- in terms of the official criteria, it has to be there for at least two weeks, consistently, every day," Sussman said. According to experts, more than 14 million U.S. adults are affected by major depressive disorder each year.

Sussman said too many Americans still mistake depression for something else -- just a temporary "funk" or even physical illness. "Many have trouble accepting the fact that it's primarily a biological problem," he said. "But it is biological -- it's as if you've got the gene for diabetes or hypertension. It just hits you."

Colvin agreed, noting that specific life events -- good or bad -- typically had little influence on when depression stuck. And while she believes that non-drug treatments such as therapy, diet and exercise can be helpful, pharmaceutical intervention was the only thing that worked for her. "If you're in a biological depression, you can diet and exercise and take vitamins all you want, and it's not going to impact it," she said.

According to Sussman, Colvin's medication of choice, Wellbutrin XL, resets the balance of two important neurochemicals linked to depression, dopamine and norepinephrine. It's in a different class of antidepressants than the widely used selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which work on another powerful brain chemical, serotonin, and include drugs such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft.

But while Wellbutrin XL has worked best for Colvin, "no drug is right for every person," she said. "This drug that I'm taking may be great for me, but it may not be for someone else." She and most experts agree that patients may want to try different medications, settling on the one that's best for them.

The key is for affected individuals to recognize depression's symptoms, and then act.

"It's just not something to toy with," said Colvin, whose next album is set for release late this year or early in 2006. "If you're feeling bad for a prolonged period of time, check it out -- don't suffer."

More information

For more on the causes, symptoms and treatment of depression, head to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

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