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What is depression?

Depression (major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you think, feel, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks. Some forms of depression are slightly different, or they may develop under unique circumstances, such as:

  • Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia): Depressed mood lasting at least two years, with episodes of major depression.
  • Postpartum Depression: More serious than "baby blues," with full-blown major depression during or after delivery.
  • Psychotic Depression: Severe depression with psychosis, such as delusions or hallucinations.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Onset of depression during winter months, improving in spring and summer.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Episodes of extremely low moods (bipolar depression) and extreme high moods (mania or hypomania).
  • Other Types: Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder.

Signs & Symptoms:

If you have been experiencing some of the following signs and symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks, you may be suffering from depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restlessness or having trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide; or suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause

Not everyone who is depressed experiences every symptom. Some people experience only a few symptoms while others may experience many. Several persistent symptoms in addition to low mood are required for a diagnosis of major depression, but people with only a few – but distressing – symptoms may benefit from treatment of their "subsyndromal" depression. 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.

Risk Factors:

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S. Current research suggests that depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Depression can happen at any age, but often begins in adulthood. Many chronic mood and anxiety disorders in adults begin as high levels of anxiety in children. Depression, especially in midlife or older adults, can co-occur with other serious medical illnesses.

Risk Factors Include:

  • Personal or family history of depression
  • Major life changes, trauma, or stress
  • Certain physical illnesses and medications

Treatment and Therapies

Depression, even in the most severe cases, can be treated. The earlier that treatment can begin, the more effective it is. Depression is usually treated with medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. If these treatments do not reduce symptoms, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and other brain simulation therapies may be options to explore.

Medications

Antidepressants are medications that treat depression. They may help improve the way your brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress. Antidepressants take time – usually 2 to 4 weeks – to work, and often, symptoms such as sleep, appetite, and concentration problems improve before mood lifts.

If you are unsure of where to start.

Beyond Treatment: Things You Can Do

Here are other tips to help you or a loved one during treatment for depression:

  • Try to be active and exercise
  • Set realistic goals for yourself
  • 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
  • Postpone important decisions until you feel better
  • Continue to educate yourself about depression

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