Understanding Depression
Depression is a common but often misunderstood illness. Learn about its causes and treatment.

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Understanding Depression

You probably have days when you feel sad or blue. Most people do. You just hit an emotional low point. But after a few days your feelings should start to lift.

If you find it hard to move on and feel better, and that your sadness is starting to interfere with daily life, it may be time to seek help. Your bout of sadness might really be depression. If your depression has lasted more than two weeks, it is definitely time to speak with your doctor.

Depression is not just in your head. It's a complex illness that can be mild or severe, and can be different from person to person. But it can be effectively treated, and the sooner you start getting help, the better.

Symptoms
When you're depressed, you may lose interest in things you used to enjoy. You might not have energy for work or leisure activities. Perhaps you're eating or sleeping too little or too much. You may not want to be with people and are starting to isolate yourself. This kind of withdrawal can cause you pain. And it can hurt those around you.

Here are a few other common symptoms of depression:

  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic, guilty, worthless or helpless
  • Being persistently sad or having an empty feeling
  • Being easily fatigued or restless
  • Difficulty concentrating or making a decision
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

(If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, call your health care professional, 911 or a suicide hotline such as 1-800-SUICIDE [1-800-784-2433], or have someone drive you to your nearest emergency department. If you feel that you are in immediate danger of hurting yourself, CALL 911 or your local emergency services immediately.)

Depression is likely caused by a combination of psychological, biological, genetic and environmental factors. It can occur at any age and may or may not be traceable to a single incident or situation. It's fairly common, occurring in women more often than men. It's commonly seen in older adults. Children, teens, adults and seniors may express depression differently. For children, signs may include severe irritability and angry outbursts.

Even though depression is common, many people don't understand it. You may be ashamed to admit how you're feeling, and may blame yourselves for not being stronger, happier and better.

Don't let these notions stand in the way of getting help. Depression is not your fault. It is an illness and it can be treated. Treatment can relieve symptoms and help you enjoy life again.

Getting help
Your first step should be to visit a doctor or mental health specialist. Some medications or medical conditions can cause symptoms similar to depression. An exam, interview and lab tests may be ordered to rule out these possibilities. If a medical evaluation finds no obvious causes, the next step should be a psychological evaluation.

A health professional may ask you about:

  • Family history of depression or mental illness
  • Your symptoms: when they started, how long you've felt this way, how severe the symptoms are
  • Previous history of depression and what treatment you received
  • If previous history, what has helped make things better and what made things worse
  • Use of alcohol or drugs and family history of drugs and alcohol
  • Family history of depression and suicide
  • Any thoughts of hurting yourself or others

These and other questions will help the caregiver give you better treatment. That treatment might include medication, psychotherapy or other methods.

You may think you are too tired or hopeless to take steps to get better. But there are things you can do to help yourself. See a health professional as soon as you can. Try to be active, get some exercise and be around other people. Confide in people you trust and ask for support. Don't take on huge tasks or life-changing decisions until you start feeling better.

And don't expect your energy and positive outlook to just pop back into place. They should return gradually, over time, as you get the help you need. Having the support of others around you is also helpful. Many people have been through the same experience and can help.

By Ginny Greene, Editor
Created on 06/08/1999
Updated on 02/20/2014
Sources:
  • National Institute of Mental Health. What is depression?
  • American Psychiatric Association. Depression.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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