Depression is a real illness.
I’m a firefighter and ex-Marine. I should be able to deal with anything. But I was sleeping poorly and always in a bad mood. My work was suffering because I couldn’t concentrate. I felt like I was just going through the motions and wondering what the point of it all was. I never considered that I might have an underlying condition. I figured this is just how life is.
Sadness is something we all experience. It is a normal reaction to difficult times in life and usually passes with a little time.
When a person has depression, it interferes with daily life and normal functioning. It can cause pain for both the person with depression and those who care about him or her. Doctors call this condition “depressive disorder,” or “clinical depression.” It is a real illness. It is not a sign of a person’s weakness or a character flaw. You can’t “snap out of” clinical depression. Most people who experience depression need treatment to get better.
Signs and Symptoms
Sadness is only a small part of depression. Some people with depression may not feel sadness at all. Depression has many other symptoms, including physical ones. If you have been experiencing any of the following signs and symptoms for at least 2 weeks, you may be suffering from depression:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms
Factors That Play a Role in Depression
Many factors may play a role in depression, including genetics, brain biology and chemistry, and life events such as trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, an early childhood experience, or any stressful situation.
Depression can happen at any age, but often begins in the teens or early 20s or 30s. Most chronic mood and anxiety disorders in adults begin as high levels of anxiety in children. In fact, high levels of anxiety as a child could mean a higher risk of depression as an adult.
Depression can co-occur with other serious medical illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Depression can make these conditions worse and vice versa. Sometimes medications taken for these illnesses may cause side effects that contribute to depression. A doctor experienced in treating these complicated illnesses can help work out the best treatment strategy.
Research on depression is ongoing, and one day these discoveries may lead to better diagnosis and treatment. To learn more about current research, visit the NIMH website at www.nimh.nih.gov .
Types of Depression
There are several types of depressive disorders.
Major depression: Severe symptoms that interfere with the ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life. An episode can occur only once in a person’s lifetime, but more often, a person has several episodes.
Persistent depressive disorder: A depressed mood that lasts for at least 2 years. A person diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder may have episodes of major depression along with periods of less severe symptoms, but symptoms must last for 2 years.
Some forms of depression are slightly different, or they may develop under unique circumstances. They include:
Psychotic depression, which occurs when a person has severe depression plus some form of psychosis, such as having disturbing false beliefs or a break with reality (delusions), or hearing or seeing upsetting things that others cannot hear or see (hallucinations).
Postpartum depression, which is much more serious than the “baby blues” that many women experience after giving birth, when hormonal and physical changes and the new responsibility of caring for a newborn can be overwhelming. It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of women experience postpartum depression after giving birth.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is characterized by the onset of depression during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. The depression generally lifts during spring and summer. SAD may be effectively treated with light therapy, but nearly half of those with SAD do not get better with light therapy alone. Antidepressant medication and psychotherapy can reduce SAD symptoms, either alone or in combination with light therapy.
Bipolar disorder is different from depression. The reason it is included in this list is because someone with bipolar disorder experiences episodes of extreme low moods (depression). But a person with bipolar disorder also experiences extreme high moods (called “mania”).
You can learn more about many of these disorders on the NIMH website at www.nimh.nih.gov .
Depression affects people in different ways.
Not everyone who is depressed experiences every symptom. Some people experience only a few symptoms. Some people have many. The severity and frequency of symptoms, and how long they last, will vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness. Symptoms may also vary depending on the stage of the illness.
My friends keep asking what’s wrong with me. I have a great job and a wonderful family. But nothing seems fun anymore. I’m tired all the time. I’m trying to force myself to be interested in my kid’s activities, but I’m just not anymore. I feel lonely, sad, and don’t have the energy to get things done. I feel like I’m being a bad mom.
Women with depression do not all experience the same symptoms. However, women with depression typically have symptoms of sadness, worthlessness, and guilt.
Depression is more common among women than among men. Biological, lifecycle, hormonal, and psychosocial factors that are unique to women may be linked to their higher depression rate. For example, women are especially vulnerable to developing postpartum depression after giving birth, when hormonal and physical changes and the new responsibility of caring for a newborn can be overwhelming.
I’d drink and I’d drink just to get numb. I’d get numb to try to numb my head. You’re talking many, many beers to get to that state when you can shut your head off. But then you wake up the next day, and it’s still there. You have to deal with it. It doesn’t just go away.
Men often experience depression differently than women. While women with depression are more likely to have feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and excessive guilt, men are more likely to be very tired, irritable, lose interest in once-pleasurable activities, and have difficulty sleeping.
Men may turn to alcohol or drugs when they are depressed. They also may become frustrated, discouraged, irritable, angry, and sometimes abusive. Some men may throw themselves into their work to avoid talking about their depression with family or friends, or behave recklessly. And although more women attempt suicide, many more men die by suicide in the United States.
My son Timothy used to be an outgoing 9-year-old who loved school. Now he frequently complains of stomachaches and refuses to go to school. He yells at his younger sister a lot. He quit the soccer team and instead has stayed in his room playing video games.
Before puberty, girls and boys are equally likely to develop depression. A child with depression may pretend to be sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent, or worry that a parent may die. Because normal behaviors vary from one childhood stage to another, it can be difficult to tell whether a child is just going through a temporary “phase” or is suffering from depression. Sometimes the parents become worried about how the child’s behavior has changed, or a teacher mentions that “your child doesn’t seem to be himself.” In such a case, if a visit to the child’s pediatrician rules out physical symptoms, the doctor will probably suggest that the child be evaluated, preferably by a mental health professional who specializes in the treatment of children. Most chronic mood disorders, such as depression, begin as high levels of anxiety in children.
I was constantly bullied, my heart was in the midst of being broken, and my grades were falling. The pain I suffered day after day, night after night was unbearable. I felt as if I was drowning. I hated myself. My mom was worried and took me to the doctor. My doctor diagnosed me with depression at the end of my junior year in high school. I needed help.
The teen years can be tough. Teens are forming an identity apart from their parents, grappling with gender issues and emerging sexuality, and making independent decisions for the first time in their lives. Occasional bad moods are to be expected, but depression is different.
Older children and teens with depression may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative and irritable, and feel misunderstood. If you’re unsure if an adolescent in your life is depressed or just “being a teenager,” consider how long the symptoms have been present, how severe they are, and how different the teen is acting from his or her usual self. Teens with depression may also have other disorders such as anxiety, eating disorders, or substance abuse. They may also be at higher risk for suicide.
Children and teenagers usually rely on parents, teachers, or other caregivers to recognize their suffering and get them the treatment they need. Many teens don’t know where to go for mental health treatment or believe that treatment won’t help. Others don’t get help because they think depression symptoms may be just part of the typical stress of school or being a teen. Some teens worry what other people will think if they seek mental health care.
Depression often persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, especially if left untreated. If you suspect a child or teenager in your life is suffering from depression, speak up right away.
Quick Tips for Talking to Your Depressed Child or Teen:
- Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
- Talk to your child, not necessarily about depression, and listen carefully.
- Never discount the feelings your child expresses, but point out realities and offer hope.
- Never ignore comments about suicide.
- Remind your child that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.
My mother is 68 years old, and I’ve noticed some changes…She isn’t interested in her favorite foods anymore. She has trouble sleeping at night and snaps at the grandchildren more than usual. She used to be pretty outgoing, but now she keeps to herself a lot.
Having depression for a long period of time is not a normal part of growing older. Most older adults feel satisfied with their lives, despite having more illnesses or physical problems. But depression in older adults may be difficult to recognize because they may show different, less obvious symptoms.
Sometimes older people who are depressed appear to feel tired, have trouble sleeping, or seem grumpy and irritable. Confusion or attention problems caused by depression can sometimes look like Alzheimer’s disease or other brain disorders. Older adults also may have more medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke, or cancer, which may cause depressive symptoms. Or they may be taking medications with side effects that contribute to depression.
Some older adults may experience what doctors call vascular depression, also called arteriosclerotic depression or subcortical ischemic depression. Vascular depression may result when blood vessels become less flexible and harden over time, becoming constricted. The hardening of vessels prevents normal blood flow to the body’s organs, including the brain. Those with vascular depression may have or be at risk for heart disease or stroke.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish grief from major depression. Grief after loss of a loved one is a normal reaction and generally does not require professional mental health treatment. However, grief that is complicated and lasts for a very long time following a loss may require treatment.
Older adults who had depression when they were younger are more at risk for developing depression in late life than those who did not have the illness earlier in life.
Depression is treatable.
My daily routine was shot. I didn’t have the energy to do anything. I got up because the dog had to be walked and my wife needed to go to work. The day would go by, and I didn’t know where it went. I wanted to get back to normal. I just wanted to be myself again. A friend noticed that something wasn’t right. I talked to him about the time he had been really depressed and had gotten help from his doctor.
Depression, even the most severe cases, can be treated. The earlier treatment begins, the more effective it is. Most adults see an improvement in their symptoms when treated with antidepressant drugs, talk therapy (psychotherapy), or a combination of both.
If you think you may have depression, start by making an appointment to see your doctor or health care provider. This could be your primary doctor. Certain medications, and some medical conditions, such as viruses or a thyroid disorder, can cause the same symptoms as depression. A doctor can rule out these possibilities by doing a physical exam, interview, and lab tests. If the doctor can find no medical condition that may be causing the depression.
Quick Tip: Making an Appointment
If you still need to make an appointment, here are some things you could say during the first call: “I haven’t been myself lately, and I’d like to talk to the provider about it,” or “I think I might have depression, and I’d like some help.”
Talking to Your Doctor
How well you and your doctor talk to each other is one of the most important parts of getting good health care. But talking to your doctor isn’t always easy. It takes time and effort on your part as well as your doctor’s.
To prepare for your appointment, make a list of:
- Any symptoms you’ve had, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for your appointment
- When did your symptoms start?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- Have the symptoms occurred before?
- If the symptoms have occurred before, how were they treated?
- Key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes
- All medications, vitamins, or other supplements that you’re taking, including how much and how often
- Questions to ask your health provider
If you don’t have a primary doctor or are not at ease with the one you currently see, now may be the time to find a new doctor. Whether you just moved to a new city, changed insurance providers, or had a bad experience with your doctor or medical staff, it is worthwhile to spend time finding a doctor you can trust.
Tests and Diagnosis
Your doctor or health care provider will examine you and talk to you at the appointment. Your doctor may do a physical exam and ask questions about your health and symptoms. There are no lab tests that can specifically diagnose depression, but your doctor may also order some lab tests to rule out other conditions.
Ask questions if the doctor’s explanations or instructions are unclear, bring up problems even if the doctor doesn’t ask, and let the doctor know if you have concerns about a particular treatment or change in your daily life.
Your doctor may refer you to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or mental health counselor, who should discuss with you any family history of depression or other mental disorder, and get a complete history of your symptoms. The mental health professional may also ask if you are using alcohol or drugs, and if you are thinking about death or suicide. If your doctor does not refer you to a mental health professional or you feel your concerns were not adequately addressed, call or visit the website for your health insurance provider, Medicare ( www.medicare.gov/ ), or Medicaid ( http://medicaid.gov/ ). You can also try searching in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator ( https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/ ) or one of the other resources listed at the end of this booklet to find one.
Need Help Now?
Depression is treated with medicines, talk therapy (where a person talks with a trained professional about his or her thoughts and feelings; sometimes called “psychotherapy”), or a combination of the two. Remember: No two people are affected the same way by depression. There is no “one-size-fits-all” for treatment. It may take some trial and error to find the treatment that works best for you.
I called my doctor and talked about how I was feeling. She had me come in for a checkup and gave me the name of a specialist who is an expert in treating depression.
Talk Therapy (“Psychotherapy”)
Several types of psychotherapy—or “talk therapy”—can help people with depression. There are several types of psychotherapies that may be effective in treating depression. Examples include cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and problem-solving therapy.
Now I’m seeing the specialist on a regular basis for “talk therapy,” which helps me learn ways to deal with this illness in my everyday life, and I’m taking medicine for depression. I’m starting to feel more like myself again. Without treatment, I felt like everything was dark—as if I was looking at life through tinted glasses. Treatment is helping it clear.
Quick Tip: Get the Latest Information
This information may have changed since the publication of this booklet, so please visit the NIMH website at www.nimh.nih.gov to explore the latest research and the FDA website at www.fda.gov for the most recently approved treatment options.
Beyond Treatment: Things You Can Do
If you have depression, you may feel exhausted, helpless, and hopeless. It may be extremely difficult to take any action to help yourself. But as you begin to recognize your depression and begin treatment, you will start to feel better. Here are other tips that may help you or a loved one during treatment:
- Try to be active and exercise. Go to a movie, a ballgame, or another event or activity that you once enjoyed.
- Set realistic goals for yourself.
- Break up large tasks into small ones, set some priorities, and do what you can as you can.
- Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative. Try not to isolate yourself and let others help you.
- Expect your mood to improve gradually, not immediately. Do not expect to suddenly “snap out of” your depression. Often during treatment for depression, sleep and appetite will begin to improve before your depressed mood lifts.
- Postpone important decisions, such as getting married or divorced or changing jobs, until you feel better. Discuss decisions with others who know you well and have a more objective view of your situation.
- Remember that positive thinking will replace negative thoughts as your depression responds to treatment.
- Continue to educate yourself about depression.
You are not alone.
Major depressive disorder is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. You are not alone.
Sometimes living with depression can seem overwhelming, so build a support system for yourself. Your family and friends are a great place to start. Talk to trusted family members or friends to help them understand how you are feeling and that you are following your doctor’s recommendations to treat your depression.
In addition to your treatment, you could also join a support group. These are not psychotherapy groups, but some may find the added support helpful. At the meetings, people share experiences, feelings, information, and coping strategies for living with depression.
Remember: Always check with your doctor before taking any medical advice that you hear in your group.
You can find a support group through many professional, consumer, advocacy, and service-related organizations. On the NIMH website ( www.nimh.nih.gov/outreach/partnership-program/index.shtml ), there is a list of NIMH Outreach Partners. Some of these partners sponsor support groups for different mental disorders including depression. You can also find online support groups, but you need to be careful about which groups you join. Check and make sure the group is affiliated with a reputable health organization, moderated professionally, and maintains your anonymity.
If unsure where to start, talk to someone you trust who has experience in mental health—for example, a doctor, nurse, social worker, or religious counselor. Some health insurance providers may also have listings of hospitals offering support groups for depression.
Remember: Joining a support group does not replace your doctor or your treatment prescribed by your doctor. If a support group member makes a suggestion that you are interested in trying, talk to your doctor first. Do not assume what worked for the other person will work for you.
If You Think a Loved One May Have Depression
If you know someone who is depressed, it affects you too. The most important thing you can do is to help your friend or relative get a diagnosis and treatment. You may need to make an appointment and go with him or her to see the doctor. Encourage your loved one to stay in treatment or to seek different treatment options if no improvement occurs after 6 to 8 weeks.
To help your friend or relative:
- Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
- Talk to him or her, and listen carefully.
- Never dismiss feelings, but point out realities and offer hope.
- Never ignore comments about suicide and report them to your loved one’s therapist or doctor.
- Invite your loved one out for walks, outings, and other activities. Keep trying if he or she declines, but don’t push him or her to take on too much too soon.
- Provide assistance in getting to doctors’ appointments.
- Remind your loved one that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.
Caring for someone with depression is not easy. Someone with depression may need constant support for a long period of time. Make sure you leave time for yourself and your own needs. If you feel you need additional support, there are support groups for caregivers too.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Asking questions and providing information to your doctor and other care providers can improve your care. Talking with your doctor builds trust and leads to better results, quality, safety, and satisfaction. Visit the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website for tips at www.ahrq.gov/patients-consumers/index.html.
National Institute of Mental Health
Office of Science Policy, Planning, and Communications
Science Writing, Press, and Dissemination Branch
6001 Executive Boulevard
Room 6200, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Phone: 301-443-4513 or 1-866-615-NIMH (6464) toll-free
TTY: 301-443-8431 or 1-866-415-8051 toll-free
E-mail: [email protected]
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Institutes of Health
NIH Publication No. 15-3561