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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
There are many types of depression you may have heard of, including major depressive disorder (MDD) and persistent depressive disorder. One you may be a little less familiar with? Catatonic depression.
So, what is catatonic depression? The condition occurs when depression and catatonia are experienced simultaneously — but there’s a lot more to it.
Keep reading to learn how catatonic depression affects people, the common symptoms and how it’s treated.
Catatonic depression is when catatonia occurs comorbidly with depression.
As for catatonia? That’s something you may be less familiar with. Simply put, catatonic syndrome impacts your awareness of what’s going on around you. It does this by messing with how your brain works.
Common signs of catatonia include communication impairment, a lack of movement and other abnormal behaviors.
People most at risk of catatonia episodes are those with mental disorders. This includes mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, as well as schizophrenia, neurological issues and other medical conditions.
As for how common catatonia is, it’s thought to occur in up to 2 percent of people who receive psychiatric care. But that number jumps to 10 percent for those who receive inpatient psychiatric care.
In some severe cases, malignant catatonia (also called malignant syndrome) may occur. This is when catatonia leads to death.
It happens because of something called dysautonomia, when the autonomic nervous system stops working as it should. This can lead to a too-high body temperature, a fast heart rate, sweating and more. Though malignant catatonia isn’t always fatal, death isn’t an uncommon result.
Since catatonic depression comprises two separate conditions, you need to look at both to find the cause.
Experts suspect different forms of depression are caused by low levels of certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine. These brain chemicals are vital for relaying information between neurons.
As for catatonia, no one fully understands what causes it. However, people with the following psychological conditions are more likely to experience it:
Major depressive disorder (or major depression)
A number of neurological and medical conditions are also thought to possibly cause catatonia. They include autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, encephalitis, epilepsy and stroke, among others.
Given all this, it’s possible to have depression and another condition that causes catatonia — which would lead to catatonic depression. But it’s also possible for depression to lead to catatonia on its own.
When catatonic depression occurs, people will experience both signs and symptoms of depression and catatonia.
But first, it’s helpful to know what to be on the lookout for when it comes to depression. Generally, if you experience depressive symptoms for more than a few weeks, you may be diagnosed with depression.
Some of the more common signs of a depressive episode are:
Feelings of sadness, hopelessness or worthlessness
No longer wanting to engage in social activities
Appetite changes, weight gain or weight loss
A decrease in libido
If you’re dealing with catatonic depression, you’ll have some of the above symptoms but will also experience signs of catatonia.
Catatonic symptoms include:
Catalepsy (holding a pose you’re placed in)
Echolalia (echoing sounds others make)
Echopraxia (mimicking someone else’s movements)
Stiff or tense facial muscles or a grimace-like facial expression
Mutism (not talking)
Not reacting to what’s going on around you (also called negativism)
Repetitive movements that don’t have a purpose (also called stereotypy)
Waxy flexibility or “locked-in syndrome” (not allowing someone to change your position)
Many signs of catatonia are hard to notice on your own. After all, if you’re in a catatonic state, you may not be super aware of yourself. Instead, a healthcare professional may notice these catatonic symptoms and diagnose you.
If someone goes into a catatonic state, it’s important to treat it first. Once catatonic symptoms are addressed, you’ll have more freedom to treat your depression.
In other words, you may need to treat catatonic depression in two parts: first the catatonia, then the depression.
There are a few treatment options for the symptoms of catatonia.
Benzodiazepines can be a very effective medication prescribed to treat catatonia. In fact, up to 90 percent of people with catatonia who use this type of medication notice an improvement in catatonia symptoms.
Lorazepam (a type of benzodiazepine) is the most common medication used. It can be administered through an intravenous line, an injection or in pill form.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is another option. A mild electrical current is run through the brain to cause a minor seizure. This is often done under general anesthesia, so catatonic patients don’t even know it’s happening. ECT is commonly used for people with malignant syndrome, and it can save lives.
Once catatonia is handled, you can then focus on the depression aspect of catatonic depression.
If you’re no longer catatonic but still dealing with moderate or severe depression, therapy and medication can be good solutions. Often, people will engage in both of these treatments.
However, if you’re still on benzodiazepines, you may not be put on an antidepressant.
Catatonic depression is when someone has both depression and catatonia.
Catatonia impacts your awareness of the world around you. People with certain mental disorders and mood disorders are more prone to catatonia, including depression and bipolar disorder.
Being in a prone position for a period of time, mutism and being unaware of what’s happening around you are all catatonia symptoms.
As noted, if you have catatonic depression, it’s important to seek treatment for catatonia first. Benzodiazepine medications and electroconvulsive therapy are both shown to be effective treatments for catatonia.
To learn more about catatonic depression, schedule an online consultation with a mental health professional.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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