FACETIME- Cheer up: How Clayton tackles women's depression

For most doctors, spells of forgetfulness are a hindrance at work. For psychiatrist Anita Clayton, who recently turned the big 5-0, those spells actually help her relate to the women she treats.

"I feel very confident saying to my patients, 'You're not getting dementia. That's just your estrogen level,'" she laughs.

An expert in women's mental health, Clayton recently helped lead an expansion of the UVA Health System's "Ages and Stages," an online guide that encourages women to seek age-appropriate support services when coping with depression.

"We find that women at different ages are more likely to rely on different people.  Young women depend on their mothers, whereas women who are getting into midlife  may not have their mothers; they may participate in activities that lead them to find support," she says. "Older women may find themselves without support, so it's harder."

While a large social network is a good thing, Clayton says, it's not the only effective weapon to fight depression. In fact, finding just one source of support can be enough. "It's not like you need to tell everybody, just like you don't need to tell everybody when you're sick with something else," she says. "But it can be very helpful to tell just one person, and the stigma sometimes keeps people from doing even that."

While depression has been Clayton's primary professional focus, she has an interest in all aspects of women's mental health. In fact, she believes one of her most important achievements was the 2002 textbook she co-authored with Dr. Susan Kornstein from  VCU. It was the first comprehensive textbook focused on women's mental health, leading the New England Journal of Medicine to label it "a must for any clinician interested in women's health."

"That's about as good as it gets," laughs Kornstein.

With that publishing success under her belt, Clayton has now set her sights on a related field of study: sexual dysfunction, which she says is closely correlated to depression.

"One of the things we find about depression is that it makes people not very  interested in sex, and it makes them pull away from people with whom they have a relationship," she says. "That's how I got into this area of looking at sexual functioning– it was affected by depression."  

She has a book on the subject coming out in early 2007, and hopes it– like all of her work– will help change the perception that depression is somehow shameful.

"It's in every family, it's in friends," she says. "I don't think it's something we should keep secret. I don't understand the mentality of acting like it's a character flaw."

Anita Clayton