Despite the fact that 17 million adult Americans experience depression in any given year, the condition is still misunderstood and stigmatized, preventing many from seeking treatment.
Far from a fleeting case of the blues, major depression is marked by an extended sense of sadness and despair that distorts how sufferers think, feel and function, according to the Mayo Clinic. It significantly interferes with daily living tasks such as eating and sleeping and may prompt thoughts of suicide.
Symptoms & Causes
Depression symptoms cover a wide swath of moods, emotions and behaviors that vary from person to person and range from mild to severe. They include:
Depression can affect people of both genders as well as all ages, races and socio-economic classes. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), depression’s exact cause is unknown, though there are many clear predisposing factors.
An imbalance in brain chemistry – which can be genetic – is believed to produce many cases. A variety of distressing life situations are also associated, including early childhood trauma, a job loss, the death of a loved one, financial troubles, or a divorce. Often, a combination of factors exists.
Certain medical conditions may also trigger depression, including an underactive thyroid gland, cancer, prolonged pain and other significant illnesses. Hormonally-induced depression can arise after childbirth or at menopause as well.
Additionally, sedatives and high blood pressure medications are linked to depression, according to the NIH.
Left untreated, major depression can set off a chain of social, emotional and health complications that add to patients’ overall stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include:
Depression also manifests in several other forms. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic, these include:
Diagnosis & Tests
Because of misperceptions and stigma surrounding depression, many sufferers never seek help. But unexpressed worries and feelings of isolation may worsen the condition, according to the American Psychological Association.
Doctors who suspect depression typically ask patients about their family health history, mood and behavior patterns (such as eating and sleeping), and thoughts of suicide. They may also ask patients to report their depression symptoms on a printed questionnaire.
Beyond that, physical illnesses that induce depression must be ruled out, so blood and thyroid tests may be done, according to the Mayo Clinic.
To pin down a diagnosis of depression, patients must experience five or more of the major depressive symptoms (listed above) over a two-week period, with one of the symptoms being low mood or lack of interest or pleasure in daily life.
Treatments & Medication
Depression treatment may involve psychotherapy therapy, medications, or both. Prescription drugs, called antidepressants, help alter mood by affecting naturally-occurring brain chemicals. Antidepressant categories include: