What is Depression?

Written By

Helen Kaminski, MSc

Updated:

Fact Checked

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Key insights

  • Depression is a common and serious illness that affects mood, thoughts, and behavior.
  • There are different types of depression, such as major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.
  • Symptoms include prolonged sadness, loss of interest, changes in appetite and sleep, and suicidal thoughts.
  • Depression is highly treatable through medications, psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, and early intervention.

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders, which impacts millions of people globally. It is marked by continuous depression, feelings of hopelessness, and no fun in what used to be pleasurable.

Major depression interferes with a person’s ability to work, study, sleep, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable daily activities.

However, with proper treatment and support, recovery from depression is possible.

Statistics

  • Over one-third (36.7%) of women report being diagnosed with depression in their lifetime, compared to 20.4% of men. The rate for women has risen nearly twice as fast as men’s since 2017.
  • Younger adults aged 18-29 (34.3%) and 30-44 (34.9%) have significantly higher lifetime depression diagnosis rates than those over 44.
  • Women (23.8%) and adults 18-29 (24.6%) have the highest rates of current depression or treatment. These groups, along with adults 30-44, have seen the fastest rate increases since 2017.
    Source: Gallup, 2023

What exactly is depression?

Depression is not simply about sadness or a lousy day. It is a medical condition experienced through severe and ongoing symptoms that can keep appearing for weeks, even up to months, or a number of years if allowed to progress without taking action to treat it.

  • The most essential feature of depression is the sad, anxious, or “empty” mood occurring through most parts of a day for at least two weeks or longer.

Typically, this manifests as a diminished ability to experience pleasure, or interest in previously pleasurable activities.

  • Some of the other emotional symptoms include hopelessness feelings, negativity, guilt, lack of self-esteem, and helplessness.

Other common disruptions include appetite, fluctuating sleep patterns, and more:

For instance, some people with depression tend to eat less and therefore lose weight while others have much appetite and end up gaining unnecessary weight.

Excessive or insufficient sleep is also prevalent.

Depression also comes with major physical symptoms, besides emotional ones.

Such include fatigue, body aches, headaches, digestive problems, and cramps that don’t respond to regular treatment.

However, declining interest in sex and thoughts of death or even suicide might manifest themselves as well.

  • These individuals suffer from depressive syndrome, the signs of which are likely to be different for different people.

However, by and large, the symptoms are so serious as to hinder the person from engaging in normal day-to-day functions, thereby lowering his/her life quality significantly.

They may also suffer in work, school, relationships, and personal relationships, among others.

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Different types of depressive disorders

Depressive disorders come in a number of different forms. These include:

Major depressive disorder – This is the most prevalent and chronic type of depression, which is relatively unbearable. During the day, for more than half of it, this happens in a two-week span or longer. Daily activities and daily functioning are completely interfered with.

Persistent depressive disorder – This represents a chronic, mild form of depression. The symptoms are less severe than in major depression but persist for a minimum of two years.

Post-partum depression – This happens after giving birth, commonly in the first several months. This is caused by a combination of hormonal changes and stresses of new motherhood.

Seasonal affective disorder – It involves a mood disorder due to reduced lengths of winter days. It has a yearly seasonal pattern.

Bipolar disorder – This disorder is also referred to as manic-depressive illness whereby the affected individual experiences very high and low mood shifts. This entails the cycling of depression and mania.

Smiling depression – Also called hidden depression, where individuals hide their sadness, and is very common, especially around workaholics.

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Possible causes and risk factors

Depression has numerous causes, most of which remain unknown. However, research shows that a combination of factors play a role, including:

Genetics – Depression can run in families, suggesting that people’s tendencies for it can be inherited.

Chemistry of the brain – Some researchers have found that these depressive disorders have resulted from dysregulation of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Hormonal influence — Changes in reproductive hormones may increase susceptibility, particularly among women. Scientists around the world are investigating how changes in hormone levels may worsen mood disorders like depression.

Illnesses – Such diseases include; cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetic conditions, and autoimmune disorders all increase risk.

Substance abuse – Chronic use of alcohol, some drugs, or medicines may cause depressive symptoms. Withdrawal can also trigger depression. A study demonstrated that depression is linked to alcohol and drug use and impairment occurring at the same time.

Trauma during early life—Experiencing abuse, neglect, violence or extreme poverty as a child seems to sensitize some individuals to depression later in life.

Stress – Intense stressors such as divorce, life-threatening illness, loss of job, or a loved one may cause depression in those susceptible.

More and more research indicates psychological stress significantly impacts the immune system. Studies have also found that levels of certain immune system components, like interleukin-1β, interleukin-6, soluble IL-2 receptors, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha, are higher in people with depression. This suggests a link between depression and the immune system.

A person with a specific personality temperament such as neuroticism and introversion seems to pose a predisposition.

Depression is associated with anxiety, unresolved grief, loneliness, anger problems, and low self-esteem.


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Diagnosis and treatment

Visit your doctor or mental health professional if you have at least five depressive symptoms for two weeks.

They will make a diagnosis by conducting physical exams, interviews, mental health assessments, depression test, and lab tests. This will determine the appropriate treatment plan, which may include:

MedicationsAntidepressant medications can help to correct chemical imbalances that are contributing to depressive symptoms. Several types are available.

Psychotherapy – Also called talk therapy, choices such as cognitive behavioral therapy assist individuals in appreciating their depression thereby creating healthier thinking.

Brain stimulation therapies – Electroconvulsive therapy, or transcranial magnetic stimulation is of use in prearranged somber or treatment stubborn occurrences.

Recovering Lifestyle – Exercise, nutritious diet, peaceful sleep, and stress-free lifestyle management. In addition, some supplements may be prescribed.

Treatment can include maintaining social connections, joining a support group, and learning coping techniques, i.e. self-help strategies.

For example, moderate or severe depression responds better to a combination approach. Many people find medication and therapy together to be very helpful.

Though treatment takes time to work, recovery is very much possible with the correct interventions.

Coping with depression: Self-help strategies and support

Depression is very challenging to live with. In spite of that, there are a variety of things you can do to reduce symptoms and live well while treating your cancer. Self-help strategies include:

Socially connected – Stay in touch with relatives and close friends. Join a support group of others in your situation.

Maintain good relationships – Have good people in your circle who make you feel positive. Avoid negative people that drain you out.

Take Care of Yourself – Try to get enough sleep, follow a healthy diet, exercise regularly, use relaxation techniques, engage in fun activities, and maintain good personal hygiene. Don’t neglect yourself.

Instill discipline – Maintain Daily routine. Incorporate work and self-care. But avoid overscheduling.

Make mini-goals – Divide bigger assignments into smaller, doable tasks that can offer a sense of satisfaction.

Reward yourself – Have something to celebrate or to do so with/by yourself when you accomplish certain tasks or achieve.

Track your moods
– Use a diary or an app to monitor your spirit. Take note of elements that influence your mood either positively or negatively.

Coping skills – Develop stress-coping abilities such as mindful meditation, deep breathing, and yoga. Instead of rumination, practice coping thoughts.

Stay away from drugs and alcoholthis only serves to exacerbate depression. If you have problems with substance use, get help.

Consult professionalsfind a counselor and support group. Avoid suffering in silence too.

If you have a loved one with depression, you can provide support through:

  • Offering encouragement and emotional support
  • Reminding them that treatment can help
  • Walking, doing things together
  • Assisting with meals, errands, chores
  • Providing transportation to appointments
  • Sharing resources and information

However, given the appropriate treatment, effective methods of coping, and a good support system healing from depression is indeed possible.

If you or someone you care about is going through this? Don’t lose hope.

The impact of depression

Depression and how it affects lives. This may help people understand how devastating depression can be and, therefore, enable them to seek treatment and coping resources. Some of the major ways depression can impact quality of life include:

Depression from work, and school – Depression frequently leads to difficulties with focus, concentration, motivation, and drive.

This can cause low work performance and attendance issues. These may include problems like reduced performance in things such as exams, poor assignment completion rates, and high levels of dropout.

Relationships – Lack of energy and moodiness can be the cause of strains on personal relationships. It uses a closed-door policy on friends and family members.

It is usually a source of tension and poor communication. Such relationships often become strained.

Physical health – Ongoing inflammatory processes and physiological changes related to depression can also put patients at risk for various health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and chronic pain.

There is also a contribution from a lack of self-care.

Mental health – Besides the enormous misery and sadness, depression wrecks outlook, self-esteem, and coping abilities.

It raises the risk of self-harm and suicide, which is common for co-occurring problems such as anxiety and substance abuse.

Self-care – Neglecting oneself in hygiene, nutrition, medical care, and safety precautions due to depressive symptoms like low energy, poor concentration, sleep disruption, and isolation.

This results in more deterioration of health.

Financial problems – Depressive disorders have detrimental effects on the working ability and functioning in general roles, which in many cases result in decreased wages, unemployment, disability, and escalated cost of health care.

Early mortality – Suicide and Premature Co-occurring Medical Deaths – People living with depression are at significantly increased risk for early death and for death from suicide in association with co-occurring preventable medical conditions.

Societal CostsIt is estimated that depression costs society over $320 billion per year in terms of direct medical expenses, decreased productivity, and other expenses, including workplace accidents.

Significant challenges to overcome globally:

  • High rates of depression are a global issue, not just in the U.S.
  • Globally, nearly 4 in 10 adults aged 15+ either have significant depression/anxiety themselves or know someone close to them who does.
  • Other research estimates that 22% of Northern American adults have experienced such extreme depression/anxiety that they couldn’t continue regular activities for 2+ weeks.
  • This 22% rate in Northern America is similar to the global rate of 19%.
  • It matches estimates in Western Europe, the Middle East/North Africa, and South Asia.

Source: Gallup, 2023


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Additional resources for depression

For those dealing with mental health issues or emotional struggles, various resources exist to provide support and care. Individuals concerned about their psychological well-being or that of loved ones can use these services to find help.

  • Help for mental illness (NIH) – Find help.
  • SAMHSA – Emergency, crisis, and disaster helplines.
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • NAMI HelpLine: 800-950-6264
  • Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116
  • Alzheimer’s Association Helpline: 1-800-272-3900
  • Local public health departments offer mental health services like counseling and therapy to treat depression.
  • Community mental health centers are local resources that provide support for managing depression.
  • For a list of international helplines, visit our crisis helpline directory.

Conclusion

Depression is one of the most common and manageable mental health disorders, which affects millions across the world.

This is defined by sad mood and other emotional, physical, and cognitive conditions that constantly interfere with daily life and produce a disability.

The exact causes are not clear, but genetic, biological, environmental, or psychological factors or a combination of them cause it to develop.

Diagnosis is achieved through symptomatic diagnosis, and the treatments are usually characterized by medication, therapy, lifestyle amendments, social support, and self-care techniques.

While this path is certainly hard, in truth there is recovery through tried and true psychological counseling and self-help mechanisms to cope.

There are many resources that exist to help those struggling with depression, you do not have to go through this alone.

There is hope. Many depressed people reach out for help, use available treatments, and make lifestyle changes that lead to them feeling better, functioning again, and recapturing daily satisfying life and activities.

Speak out and tell people what they can do to support your or a loved one’s recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the first signs of depression I should look out for?

Common early warning signs include prolonged sadness, inability to enjoy things they once liked, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, trouble focussing and concentrating on work, feeling guilty or worthless most of the time, low energy level, and feelings of isolation from others.

  • Be mindful of these signs and catch depression before it spirals out of control.

How can I support a friend or family member with depression?

You could provide them with emotional support by listening non-judgmentally, reminding them that you care, and encouraging professional treatment.

  • It helps to lower their stress through involvement in activities, sharing transportation, encouraging support for them, and rewarding them for taking steps to get better.

Is depression only treated with medication?

Although medications such as antidepressants can work for some, therapy, lifestyle changes, social support, and self-care strategies also play a significant role in treating many individuals.

  • The most effective may be a combination of medication, therapy, and a lot of self-care; however, be sure to confirm this with your doctor.

Do natural remedies or supplements work for depression?

Some supplements can enhance mood but may not be adequate in treating severe clinical depression separately.

  • Never start taking any supplements before having a word with your doctor. Take measures for a healthy lifestyle that can aid in the recovery.

What is depression? – Helen M. Farrell | Ted-Ed

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About the author

Helen Kaminski, MSc

Helen Kaminski, MSc

Mindful living for a happier, healthier you. I’m a writer and mental health advocate in Warsaw, Poland, with five years working as a therapist. I hold a psychology degree from the University of Warsaw. I specialize in writing about mental health, using my experiences and academic background to educate and inspire others. In my free time, I volunteer at a Disability Learning Center and go for nature walks. My writing aims to break down mental health stigma and help others feel understood. Social

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