Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16 million adults in the United States had a least one major depressive episode in the past year.

Depression is a mood disorder that causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities. While many people feel sad from time to time, depression is a more serious mood disorder represented by a persistent feeling of emptiness, unhappiness, and hopelessness.

If your overall mood has changed over the last few weeks and is causing your engagement with regular daily tasks to become more difficult, you may have depression. Learn more about what depression is and how you can take steps to treat and manage it.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Depression

  • Sadness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in actives you used to enjoy
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and pessimism (expecting only bad things to occur)
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Increase in aches and pains, headaches, digestive problems
  • Lack of self-care (not bathing, grooming, etc)
  • Withdraw from social activities
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

How to Treat Depression

Even though the symptoms of depression can feel overwhelming and permanent, depression is treatable. If you or someone you love is experiencing a depressive episode, it is important that you seek out help from your primary care physician or a mental health professional.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

1.800.273.8255

If you or someone you love is having thoughts of suicide while experiencing depression, it is critical to speak with someone who can help right away. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a free and confidential resource that can connect you to a local crisis center to receive support.

Individuals who are struggling with depression can often begin to feel better by undergoing a combination of therapies, including psychotherapy, medication, and self-management.

Psychotherapy for Depression

Otherwise known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy can help you understand your diagnosis and how it impacts your life. Your therapist will also work with you to develop strategies that decrease the severity of the symptoms.

One psychotherapy technique that has been proven successful in treating depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy emphasizes the important role of thinking in how we feel and what we do. In addition to being used during treatment, CBT has also been shown to reduce the recurrence of depression.

Antidepressant Medications

Antidepressants are a group of drugs commonly prescribed for treating depression that works by increasing levels of a group of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters (primarily serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine) which are involved in regulating mood.

Brain Stimulation Therapies

For people who do not respond to other forms of therapy, a health care provider may recommend Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or other brain stimulation therapies. ECT may also be used in emergency situations, such as imminent suicide.

Finding Treatment for Depression

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) maintains an online Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator that can help locate mental health services in your area.

Additionally, there are ongoing clinical trials you can participate in that seek to gather information about potential medications and therapies before they are approved by the FDA for treating depression. These clinical trials take place at various hospitals, universities, and clinics all over the country. The NIMH website has details about current clinical trials focusing on depression.

Managing Depression Day to Day

In addition to receiving professional medical help, individuals struggling with depression are encouraged to seek out ways to help manage symptoms at home. There are a variety of approaches and activities people can try as part of an overall treatment plan including:

  • Exercise
  • Socializing with friends and family
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Participating in activities that were enjoyable before depressive episodes started.

In general, it is a good idea to postpone any major decisions until after you have recovered from your depressive episode.

Types of Depression

Since depression is such a complex disorder, it can be difficult to define and diagnose with a single set of general criteria. Because of this, mental health professionals have broken down the disorder into several categories to help those who suffer from it.

Major Depression (Clinical Depression)

6.7%
adults in the U.S. who have experienced major depression in the last year

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one of the two most common forms of depression is major – or clinical – depression. Major depression is the most commonly diagnosed form of depression characterized as having symptoms of depression most of the day, nearly every day for at least two weeks. In addition, these symptoms will almost always interfere with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life.

Results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicate that about 6.7% of adults in the U.S. have experienced clinical depression within the last 12 months. However, this paints only part of the picture, with 8.5% of women experiencing major depression over the last year, while a lower 4.7% of men have experienced major depression in the same time period.

Persistent Depressive Disorder

Persistent depressive disorder (formerly known as dysthymia) is diagnosed after a person has symptoms of depression that last for at least two years in adults or one year in children and teenagers. In most cases, the symptoms may be milder, but because they extend for a longer period of time, it may also be more difficult to overcome them. Because symptoms are less acute, they also may be harder to detect, causing the disorder to go undiagnosed for a long time. Many people may believe that their feelings of sadness and loneliness are just part of who they are.

Because persistent depressive disorder is more difficult to detect and diagnose, it is hard to know exactly how many people suffer from the condition. Some estimates put the number as high as 105 million people worldwide, with women experiencing the disorder at a somewhat higher rate than men. An estimated 3% – 6% of people in the U.S. suffer from persistent depressive disorder annually.

Double Depression

Double depression happens when a major depressive episode occurs while someone is experiencing a longer-term period of dysthymia. Even with the worsening symptoms brought on by clinical depression, a double depression is often very hard to diagnose, since the individual may believe their persistent depressive disorder is simply intensifying. Treatment for double depression usually involves using cognitive therapy to help the person change their negative patterns of thought and give them a new way to understand and perceive both themselves and their environment.

Postpartum Depression

Many women experience a form of depression during and after pregnancy known as postpartum depression. (Technically, before the baby is born it is known as perinatal depression.) This type of depression, feelings of sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion can make it difficult for mothers to care for themselves and their child.

While there is no single cause for postpartum depression, contributing factors include a sudden decrease in certain hormones (such as estrogen and progesterone), sleep deprivation, and physical exhaustion, all resulting from the pregnancy and birth. In some cases, taking vitamin B9 supplements has been shown to help manage symptoms of postpartum depression, in addition to other common therapies like talk therapy. Doctors will avoid prescribing antidepressants for women who are pregnant or nursing, since they can affect the baby.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Certain seasons of the year can cause people to develop depressive symptoms such as low energy, sadness, irritability, and tiredness during the day. While it is more common in the winter months, some people are more likely to experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during the summer months.

While the cause of SAD is not well known, experts believe that contributing factors include the levels of serotonin and melatonin, as well as a decrease in the production of vitamin D in the winter months. Those who have experienced other types of depression or other mental disorders may be more prone to developing SAD.

Psychotic Depression

Sometimes called depressive psychosis, psychotic depression is a form of major depression that occurs with at least one form of psychosis, such as delusions or hallucinations. In addition to the common symptoms of depression, those who suffer from psychotic depression may experience an intense sense of guilt, inadequacy, or persecution, or they may hear, see, smell, or feel things that do not exist.

Most cases of psychotic depression develop after the individual has experienced several episodes of major depression without any type of psychosis, with the first psychotic depressive episodes occurring between the ages of 20 and 40. Between episodes, most people with the disorder function normally, unlike other types of psychotic disorders.

Diagnosing Depression

Many people believe that in order to receive a diagnosis and seek help for their symptoms, depression has to be debilitating and cause significant problems in their life. What they don’t realize, is that some of the more subtle signs of this disorder are often the first indication that something is going on and that it might be time to seek help.

It is always a good idea to discuss how you are feeling with your doctor during regular checkups. However, you do not have to wait until your next appointment to talk with your doctor if you experience symptoms of depression between your regular checkups.

Diagnosing depression can involve a number of physical and psychiatric exams, including:

  • Lab tests to rule out potential medical reasons for your mood
  • Diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)

Your doctor will ask about the severity of symptoms and the length of time you have been experiencing them. All of this information will help determine the proper diagnosis and treatment plan for you.