Often when we speak of depression, we are referring to the economy. Our ears perk up when we hear the word depression, so much so that economists are extremely careful about throwing the term around. Care must be taken as well in using the word to refer to the emotional state of being, which can be far worse than financial depression because it is a human experience.

In my travels, I hear people speak openly (and not so openly) about their battles with depression. Depression is a mental illness that can be costly and debilitating to sufferers, and quite costly to an organization too.

This is an important point to consider given that some form of mental illness is diagnosed in one out of four Americans, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, implying that potentially more than 100 of the CEOs who annually make the Inc. 500 list are afflicted. And that's not including the many entrepreneurs who do not seek help for whatever ailment is tormenting them.

The issue is even more significant when one considers the fact that leaders, especially those who lead during the turbulence of starting up and growing a business, are more likely than the national average to suffer from mental illness, according to Nassir Ghaemi, author of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.

Whether an entrepreneur is depressed or not, s/he must be mindful of this condition because it can affect a company's capital, i.e. human capital. Depression can lead to absenteeism, short-term disability, and decreased productivity, all of which can have a deep impact on a business. However, what we are starting to see more of in the workplace as entrepreneurs attempt to stay on top of their business while ignoring their mental health is "presenteeism," a variation on absenteeism. In short, people who are depressed are showing up for work physically, but their mind is elsewhere.

This should give you pause if you work in a medical facility, a warehouse, or any number of businesses that require people to be fully engaged, with their faculties intact. How many mistakes have been made that have ended in a lawsuit, a trip to the emergency room, or other mishaps that impact a company's bottom line? It's not uncommon for people to be on automatic pilot at some point of the day, but depression can cause professionals to just go through the motions from hours to weeks on end.

Short of a clinical diagnosis and without knowing medical terminology, there's a simple way to distinguish being sad from being depressed. Sad is when you can attribute your emotion to something such as a bad day, loss of a client, etc., from which you will bounce back. Depression is when you are unable to attribute that emotion to anything in particular. You just feel sad, dark, down, and so forth, and you don't readily bounce back.

Many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment. But the majority, even those with the most severe depression, can get better. Medications, psychotherapies, and other methods can effectively treat people with depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health

Keep in mind that, when someone you know is depressed, it's not personal, nor is there anything that you can say to eliminate his or her depression. You can, however, make someone more depressed. It is believed that depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. That being the case, professional help is needed for those suffering from depression. Here's what to look for. If you notice that someone is struggling with the following symptoms, please reassure that person of your support and suggest that that he or she consider seeing a professional:

  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.