Major depressive disorder, also called major depression, is characterized by a combination of symptoms that interfere with a person's ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities. Major depression is disabling and prevents a person from functioning normally. An episode of major depression may occur only once in a person's lifetime, but more often, it recurs throughout a person's life.
Dysthymic disorder, also called dysthymia, is characterized by long–term (two years or longer) but less severe symptoms that may not disable a person but can prevent one from functioning normally or feeling well. People with dysthymia may also experience one or more episodes of major depression during their lifetimes.
Some forms of depressive disorder exhibit slightly different characteristics than those described above, or they may develop under unique circumstances. However, not all scientists agree on how to characterize and define these forms of depression.
They include Psychotic depression, which occurs when a severe depressive illness is accompanied by some form of psychosis, such as a break with reality, hallucinations, and delusions; and Postpartum depression, which is diagnosed if a new mother develops a major depressive episode within one month after delivery. It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of women experience postpartum depression after giving birth.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is characterized by the onset of a depressive illness during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. The depression generally lifts during spring and summer. SAD may be effectively treated with light therapy, but nearly half of those with SAD do not respond to light therapy alone. Antidepressant medication and psychotherapy can reduce SAD symptoms, either alone or in combination with light therapy.
Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness, is not as common as major depression or dysthymia. Bipolar disorder is characterized by cycling mood changes-from extreme highs (e.g., mania) to extreme lows (e.g., depression).
People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency and duration of symptoms will vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.
- Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" feelings
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
- Insomnia, early–morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Overeating, or appetite loss
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
- Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
There is no single known cause of depression. Rather, it likely results from a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors.
Research indicates that depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain. Brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown that the brains of people who have depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood, thinking, sleep, appetite and behavior appear to function abnormally. In addition, important neurotransmitters–chemicals that brain cells use to communicate–appear to be out of balance. But these images do not reveal why the depression has occurred.
Some types of depression tend to run in families, suggesting a genetic link. However, depression can occur in people without family histories of depression as well. Genetics research indicates that risk for depression results from the influence of multiple genes acting together with environmental or other factors.
In addition, trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation may trigger a depressive episode. Subsequent depressive episodes may occur with or without an obvious trigger. Depression, even the most severe cases, is a highly treatable disorder. As with many illnesses, the earlier that treatment can begin, the more effective it is and the greater the likelihood that recurrence can be prevented.
The first step to getting appropriate treatment is to visit a doctor. Certain medications, and some medical conditions such as viruses or a thyroid disorder, can cause the same symptoms as depression. A doctor can rule out these possibilities by conducting a physical examination, interview and lab tests. If the doctor can eliminate a medical condition as a cause, he or she should conduct a psychological evaluation or refer the patient to a mental health professional.
The doctor or mental health professional will conduct a complete diagnostic evaluation. He or she should discuss any family history of depression, and get a complete history of symptoms, e.g., when they started, how long they have lasted, their severity, and whether they have occurred before and if so, how they were treated. He or she should also ask if the patient is using alcohol or drugs, and whether the patient is thinking about death or suicide.
Once diagnosed, a person with depression can be treated with a number of methods. The most common treatments are medication and psychotherapy.
Antidepressants work to normalize naturally occurring brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, notably serotonin and norepinephrine. Other antidepressants work on the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Scientists studying depression have found that these particular chemicals are involved in regulating mood, but they are unsure of the exact ways in which they work.
The newest and most popular types of antidepressant medications are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are similar to SSRIs. SSRIs and SNRIs are more popular than the older classes of antidepressants, such as tricyclics–named for their chemical structure–and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) because they tend to have fewer side effects. However, medications affect everyone differently–no one–size–fits–all approach to medication exists. Therefore, for some people, tricyclics or MAOIs may be the best choice.
For all classes of antidepressants, patients must take regular doses for at least three to four weeks before they are likely to experience a full therapeutic effect. They should continue taking the medication for the time specified by their doctor, even if they are feeling better, in order to prevent a relapse of the depression. Medication should be stopped only under a doctor's supervision. Some medications need to be gradually stopped to give the body time to adjust. Although antidepressants are not habit–forming or addictive, abruptly ending an antidepressant can cause withdrawal symptoms or lead to a relapse. Some individuals, such as those with chronic or recurrent depression, may need to stay on the medication indefinitely.
In addition, if one medication does not work, patients should be open to trying another. Research has shown that patients who did not get well after taking a first medication increased their chances of becoming symptom–free after they switched to a different medication or added another medication to their existing one.
Sometimes stimulants, anti–anxiety medications, or other medications are used in conjunction with an antidepressant, especially if the patient has a co–existing mental or physical disorder. However, neither anti–anxiety medications nor stimulants are effective against depression when taken alone, and both should be taken only under a doctor's close supervision.
Researchers are looking for ways to better understand, diagnose and treat depression among all groups of people. New potential treatments are being tested that give hope to those who live with depression that is particularly difficult to treat, and researchers are studying the risk factors for depression and how it affects the brain. NIMH continues to fund cutting–edge research into this debilitating disorder.
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If you or a family member is experiencing a mental health or an alcohol or other drug-related emergency, seek immediate assistance by calling the24-hour Suicide Prevention, Mental Health Crisis, Information and Referral Hotline: (216) 623-6888 or the United Way's First Call for Help, 211 or (216) 436-2000.