What is depression?

Nearly everyone has felt depressed, sad, or blue at one time or another. A depressed mood is a normal reaction to loss, life’s struggles, or injured self-esteem. Sometimes, however, depression becomes intense, lasts for long periods, and prevents a person from leading a normal life.

What are the symptoms of depression?

There are initials that may act as a mnemonic device for depression characteristics: Sleep, Interest, Guilt, Energy, Concentration, Appetite, Psychomotor, and Suicidal (SIGECAPS). In more detail, the major symptoms of depression include the following:

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day (feels sad, empty, hopeless)
  • Loss of interest in or enjoyment from things that were once pleasurable
  • Changes in appetite that lead to weight loss or gain
  • Either sleeping too little (insomnia) or too much (hypersomnia)
  • Feeling restless (psychomotor agitation) or slowed down (psychomotor retardation)
  • Loss of energy
  • Feeling worthless or inappropriately guilty
  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking, or making decisions
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide or attempting suicide (If you are having thoughts of suicide, call your local 24-hour suicide hotline right away, or call 911.)

The following physical signs also may be present:

  • Fatigue/exhaustion
  • Headache and/or achy body
  • Stomach ache or digestive problems
  • Problems with sexual function

Depression that has these characteristics is a medical condition called major depressive disorder, one of a number of depressive illnesses. More than 10 million Americans suffer from major depressive disorder each year, but most never get treatment. When left untreated, depression can become worse, last for years, and cause untold suffering.

If you suffer from depression, it’s important to remember that depression is a medical disorder that can be treated successfully.

I have coped with depression before, so why should I seek help?

You may have recognized periods of depression in your life. Perhaps these periods lasted for several months and you learned to cope. But early treatment is important because:

  • Without treatment, depression can become worse.
  • Depression can lead to suicide.
  • Without treatment, people who suffer from episodes of depression often do not fully recover.
  • Treatment can prevent depression from coming back.
  • Your depression may be the sign of another illness, which can worsen without treatment.
  • Depression can increase your risk of developing other diseases, including dementia

What causes depressive disorders?

Depressive disorders result from a mix of factors in a person’s life, including:

  • state of mind and environment
  • high levels of stress
  • life transitions
  • loss

Depressive disorders also may be caused by imbalances in the chemicals that the body uses to control mood.

Other causes of depression include:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Certain medicines
  • Serious physical and mental illnesses
  • Lack of social support
  • Lack of good coping skills
  • Conflicts that have not been resolved
  • Family history of depressive disorder*

*Some people may have an inherited predisposition, or a biological tendency, for developing a depressive disorder. This is thought to be passed down to them as part of their overall makeup.

How do I know if I have major depressive disorder?

If you have a number of the above listed symptoms for most of the day, nearly every day for two or more weeks, you may have major depressive disorder. See your health care provider or a mental health specialist. If you do not know a mental health specialist, your health care provider can refer you to one.

How is depression diagnosed?

Your health care provider can evaluate your condition by asking you to describe your symptoms and medical history. He or she also should ask you if you or anyone in your family has had depression or other mental health problems. You also may need to complete a depression screening test, such as the Beck Depression Inventory.

Sometimes, symptoms of depression are caused by a physical disorder or illness. Your health care provider also may perform a physical exam or laboratory tests to determine if there is a physical cause for the depression.

Major depressive disorder is only one type of depressive disorder. Tests and treatments will depend on what type of disorder is suspected and diagnosed.

How is depression treated?

Types of treatment depend on the depressive illness that is present. Major depressive disorder is treated with:

  • Psychotherapy (counseling or “talk therapy”)
  • Medicines
  • Both psychotherapy and medicine
Share Button