What is Depression?

Depression is a mental illness which is characterized by both mental and physical symptoms. Society often has the misconception that people with depression could feel happier if they would just try a little harder or “pull themselves out of it.” However, this could not be further from the truth. Depression is a real illness that changes the way an individual views the world.

There are three most common types of depression:
Major depression, or clinical depression, is a form of the illness that interferes with the way an individual eats, sleeps, works, enjoys life and relates to others. This kind of depression is not chronic, however, when it occurs it can be debilitating. Episodes of major depression may only occur once but, in most individuals, occur several times in a lifetime.

Dysthymia is a less severe, yet chronic form of the illness. Individuals suffering from dysthymia will be able to work, go to the store, physically care for their children, etc, but the symptoms will continue throughout their lives.

Bipolar disorder is the third most common depressive illness. It is characterized by drastic mood swings from severe highs (known as mania) to severe lows. For more information about bipolar disorder, consult the bipolar disorder fact sheet on the “General Information and Resources” page of this website.

What Causes Depression?

Research supports that depression is likely caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain which alters a person’s mood. The imbalance is thought to be caused by irregular hormone production or a problem with certain chemicals in the brain that act as messengers to nerve cells, most specifically the brain chemical called serotonin. These problems with hormone production and brain chemicals can be inherited or passed through generations. However, not everyone who suffers from depression has a family member who has also suffered from the disease.

Research has also found that these physiological changes can be triggered by environmental factors. Stressful events such as a death, divorce, abuse, personal injury, loss of a job, financial problem, etc. play a significant role in the development of depressive symptoms. This seems to be especially true for children.
In recent years, research has shown that mental health issues can accompany physical disorders. Individuals who suffer from physical illnesses such as stroke, a heart attack, cancer and Parkinson’s disease show a high prevalence of depressive illnesses as well.

Women are two times as likely to suffer from depression than men. This is attributed to hormonal factors associated with menstrual cycle changes, pregnancy, miscarriage, postpartum period, pre-menopause and menopause. Many women also face additional environmental stressors such as responsibilities at both work and home, single parenthood and caring for children and aging parents.

What are the Symptoms of Depression?

Depression affects a person both mentally and physically. Below is a list of mood, physical and cognitive changes experienced by individuals with depression. It is important to note that at least five symptoms from these lists must be present during the same time period and last for at least two weeks for a person to be diagnosed with a depressive illness.
Mood symptoms of depression:

  • Sad or depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies an individual found enjoyable, including sex
  • Physical symptoms of depression:
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Significant change in appetite or weight (significant weight gain or loss)
  • Restlessness or sluggishness
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment such as headaches, digestive disorders or chronic pain

Cognitive symptoms of depression:

  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Feelings of worthlessness or poor self-esteem
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • The symptoms of depression in children share some similarities, but can be quite different than those in adults. Symptoms of childhood depression include:
  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness or crying
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Lack of motivation or enthusiasm
  • Increased irritability, agitation, anger or hostility
  • Indecision or inability to concentrate
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Major changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Patterns of dark images in drawings or paintings
  • Play that involves excessive aggression directed toward oneself or others, or play that involves persistently sad themes
  • Recurring thoughts or talk of death, suicide or self-destructive behavior
  • Parents may look at the above list and attribute many of these symptoms to the typical angst of growing up. However, parents know their child best and should trust their instincts. If any of these symptoms persist for more than two weeks seek help from a physician.

It is important to note that anyone who is thinking about committing suicide needs immediate attention, preferably from a mental health professional or physician. Anyone who talks about suicide should be taken seriously.

What are the Treatments for Depression?

Depression is one of the most treatable of all mental illnesses. In fact, 80 to 85% of people with depression can be treated successfully. The most effective treatment for depression seems to be a combination of both medication and therapy.
Depression can be treated with a group of medications called antidepressants. Antidepressants have advanced over the years to not only target the causes of depression more specifically, but also to reduce side effects. Commonly prescribed antidepressants include Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and Effexor.
Two kinds of psychotherapy are also very effective in treating depression. Cognitive therapy involves helping people with depression to change their negative way of thinking, to replace their negative views with more adaptive and positive thoughts. Interpersonal therapy focuses on helping the individual with depression to identify and improve the problems in interpersonal relationships that may be associated with the onset of depression. Research shows that the support and comfort found in strong relationships can help an individual recover more quickly from a stressful incident.

How Common is Depression?

It is estimated that as many as 21% of women and 13% of men will suffer from an episode of depression at some point in their lives. Depression affects as many as one in every 33 children; one in eight adolescents.

Additional Resources

Guide to Feeling Better
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
National Foundation for Depressive Illness
Recovery Network of Northern Kentucky
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

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