What Is Depression? The Symptoms, Causes and Treatments You Need to Know About

Dealing with depression can be difficult — major depressive disorder is more than "feeling sad"

By Outlier Staff
April 29, 2020

Depression — also referred to as major depressive disorder or clinical depression — is a medical condition that impacts a person’s mental and physical health. It’s more than just “feeling sad,” though sadness is a common sign of depression. Clinical depression is also relatively common, affecting more than 16.1 million American adults, or approximately 6.7 percent of the population over the age of 18. Depression is also the most common disability in Americans between the ages of 15 and 44. It is more common in women than men, and the median age at the onset of depression is 32.5 years old. Depression is a complex mood disorder with a wide variety of symptoms, causes, types and treatments. Here is a brief introduction to the mental illness.

Signs and symptoms of depression

The symptoms of depression can range from being relatively mild — where a person is still able to function normally — to completely debilitating. In order to receive a depression diagnosis, symptoms typically must last for at least two weeks. Anxiety is also common in people with depression.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the signs and symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

A person does not need to experience each of these symptoms in order to be diagnosed with clinical depression. The number, severity and frequency of symptoms can differ significantly from person-to-person. And while feeling sad is a sign of depression, being sad in itself because of something circumstantial, like some kind of loss, isn’t the same as having major depressive disorder.

Types of depression

Though most people who have been diagnosed with clinical depression share certain characteristics, there are a few distinct types of depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), these include: 

  • Persistent depressive disorder: when a depressed mood lasts for at least two years.
  • Postpartum depression: depression occurring during and after pregnancy and childbirth.
  • Psychotic depression: when a person has depression in addition to a form of psychosis, such as delusions or hallucinations. 
  • Seasonal affective disorder: when the onset of depression happens during a certain season, typically winter

Causes of depression

Given that clinical depression is a mood disorder, more than simply feeling down or low for a period of time, scientists have tried to pinpoint the precise causes of depression to help determine how to potentially prevent it, as well as treat those living with the condition. According to the NIMH, current research suggests that the causes of depression are a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Additionally, risk factors for depression include:

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

Treatments for depression

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for depression. Typically, clinical depression is treated with medications, therapy, or a combination of both. Antidepressants help some people by adjusting chemicals in their brain that control mood and stress. There are a variety of antidepressants on the market, and it may take some time for a person to try different medications before they find one that works best for them. It usually takes antidepressants between two and four weeks to kick in, and they may cause side effects in some people, including changes in sleep, appetite, energy, and concentration. 

Therapy — also known as psychotherapy or talk therapy — can sometimes be enough to treat mild cases of depression. It involves regularly speaking with a trained mental health professional, and can be used in conjunction with antidepressants to treat clinical depression. One of the most common types of therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on identifying and solving problems contributing to a person’s depression. 

Though antidepressants and therapy are regularly used to treat major depressive disorder, some people have turned to alternative treatments for depression and anxiety — also known as complementary or integrative treatments — for additional relief, or if they have not been satisfied with traditional therapies. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “integrative therapy encompasses a variety of disciplines that includes everything from diet and exercise to mental conditioning and lifestyle changes.” Though there is a wide range of alternative therapies to treat depression, some of the most common include:

Depression resources

If you are experiencing the symptoms of depression, talk to your health care provider about how you’re feeling. There are also a number of resources available if you or someone you know needs help immediately. There are local and national organizations that can provide support in an emergency situation, including:  

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the free 24-hour online chat to connect with counselors and receive mental health support.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: If you’re experiencing domestic violence, call 1-800-799-7233  or visit the organization’s website for assistance and resources.

Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741 and you’ll be connected to a trained Crisis Counselor. Crisis Text Line provides free, text-based support 24/7.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN): Call 1-800-656-4673 or visit the RAINN website for 24-hour chat support.

The Trevor Project: Call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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