written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick
• edited by: Paul Arnold
• updated: 8/30/2010
A catatonic state of depression is an extremely serious mental condition that is rare but completely debilitating. Here, we’ll define it, describe the symptoms and their effect on patients, and also explain what types of depression it’s usually associated with.
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Popular Conceptions of the Catatonic State, Many of Which are True
So, what is a catatonic state of depression? The mere mention of such a condition can rightfully evoke fear and shock in anyone associated with someone who has it, let alone the person unfortunate enough to experience it. Certainly, there is a popular assumption that someone in this state loses complete control of their mental and physical functions to the degree that they are actually paralyzed, immobile, and effectively in a coma with their eyes open, but vacant. The image of a zombie comes to mind.
Losing control of mental and physical capabilities is an extremely frightening prospect to say the least; to be there but not really there in effect. It’s thought to be a result of a person having experienced such utterly dismal and extreme psychological trauma, that their own body and mind just shut down as a last-case-scenario means of coping with something that really can’t effectively be coped with. Since the causes of a catatonic state aren't fully known or understandable to the leading experts, this explanation is somewhat plausible.
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Symptoms of Catatonia
First, let’s look at what it means to be catatonic in more precise medical terminology. A catatonic state (technically known as catatonia) refers to an individual experiencing disturbances of basic motor behavior which is due to either psychological or neurological causes. It’s almost always found in conjunction with other serious mental illnesses (especially schizophrenia). One common form of it is recognized when a person exhibits rigid, bizarre, and immobile postures that can last extensive lengths of time from days to weeks, and even longer. If another person moves them to a different position, the catatonic of this sort will just remain in the new position. Little or no eye contact will occur, and the catatonic will make no effort to perform necessary daily functions like personal hygiene and the like.
Conversely, catatonic symptoms can also include excessive purposeless motor activity in the form of sudden, jerky movements that can harm them, or others around them. The person can become totally mute and unresponsive. They can also appear violent, as if the patient is agitated by an aggressive attacker or other external trigger, yet there is no external trigger there. Often, catatonics will also repeat words and phrases almost parrot-like. Both immobility (especially when frozen in awkward poses) and rapid, uncontrollable muscle movement can be extremely dangerous to the patient.
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Catatonically Depressed Individuals
Catatonic features conjoined with the extremely depressed can include all of the above stated symptoms (more commonly found in catatonic schizophrenics) as well as random motor-movements, extreme negativism, and mimicking words or phrases of those either present or not (this is known as "echolalia"). The catatonically depressed might also mimic movements of others (known as "echopraxia") as well. So it looks largely like a person has just completely shut down and tuned out or that the person is speaking and moving with incoherent and irrational patterns.
It is most closely associated with a severe form of major depression which can also be known as clinical depression, recurrent depressive disorder, or unipolar depression. Suffice it to say that the patient is suffering from an abysmally low and hopeless outlook on life whereby a chemical imbalance is highly likely in their brain. Suicide watch is imperative. Perhaps you'd like to learn more about the difference between situational and clinical depression to clear up any ambiguities you might have. But as far as depression coupled with a catatonic state, immediate medical attention is absolutely required.