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Alternative Names
mood disorder, mood changes, feeling "down", major depression

Depression can be a temporary state or a long-term emotional disorder marked by feelings of intense sadness, loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the day, nearly every day, loneliness, despair, low self-esteem, and self-reproach. These feelings can occur at any point in life. These symptoms are not clinically described as depression, though, unless the symptoms last most of the day, nearly daily, for at least two weeks or longer. Depressive disorders take many different forms. While the symptoms are often similar, the causes and treatment may be different.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Classic symptoms of depression are:
  • performing fewer daily activities
  • withdrawing from friends and social contact
  • having no appetite
  • eating less than usual, or eating more than usual
  • gaining or losing more than five pounds in a month
  • sleeping too little or too much
  • having trouble falling or staying asleep
  • having trouble concentrating
  • having memory problems
  • feeling low or irritable
  • losing interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • feeling tired often
  • having low self-esteem
  • feeling guilty, worthless, or constantly sad
  • acting irresponsibly
  • being preoccupied with thoughts about death
  • having suicidal thoughts or plans or attempting suicide
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Depression can be a response to life events. While people normally have ups and downs, a depressed mood that persists without lifting is more serious.

In many cases, the exact causes of depression are not known. But a person is more likely to become depressed if he or she:
  • loses a loved one or friend
  • experiences big or unwanted changes in life, such as a change in jobs, becoming a parent, or starting menopause
  • experiences a serious disappointment at home or work
  • takes certain medications, such as drugs for high blood pressure, corticosteroids, tranquilisers, pain relievers, and some types of hormonal birth control
  • suffers major emotional or physical trauma or abuse
  • was abused as a child
  • has serious health problems, such as anaemia, a thyroid disorder, cancer, cardiac problems, diabetes, or AIDS
  • has a family history of depression
  • abuses alcohol or drugs or is withdrawing from either
  • experiences stress or anxiety for long periods of time
Some women suffer from postpartum depression after the birth of a baby.

What can be done to prevent the condition?
Depression is not entirely preventable but a person can avoid certain risks for it. It is important to seek help before depression gets too strong a grip if a person:
  • is socially isolated
  • lacks support
  • is experiencing many changes or stresses in life
Striking a balance in relationships, work, diet, exercise, and leisure is key, too.

How is the condition diagnosed?
To help diagnose depression, a doctor will ask about symptoms. The questions will delve into any issues and events tied to the depression, such as:
  • alcohol or drug use
  • stress
  • recent life changes
  • illnesses
  • relationships
  • past emotional problems and treatments
  • issues that might have triggered the depression or made it worse
  • whether or not the timing of the depression has any meaning
To rule out a health condition or problem with medication, a medical history and physical examination will be done. Laboratory tests may be done, too, if needed.

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
If depression is not effectively treated, a person can experience serious difficulties in every area of life. Depression often hurts relationships. It also impairs work or academic performance. In some cases, it leads to suicide.

With good treatment, many people recover from depression. Some people experience it only once in their lives. Others, who are thought to be at risk due to a family history, have periodic bouts of depression. Usually, if a treatment worked in the past, subsequent episodes will respond to similar treatment.

What are the treatments for the condition?
If the cause is physical, the right medical care often resolves the problem. A person with a thyroid disorder, for example, might cast off depressive symptoms once thyroid hormones are at the right level. When there is no physical cause, depression is often treated successfully with therapy, antidepressants, or a combination of the two.

Research has shown that cognitive - behavioural therapy is effective in many cases of mild to moderate depression. Interpersonal psychotherapy is also effective in treating milder forms of depression. More severe depression requires the use of antidepressants in addition to psychotherapeutic interventions. In circumstances where the depression is so severe that normal life sustaining activities are compromised, electro-convulsive therapy may be the treatment of choice. When administered selectively, ECT has at least an 80% success rate. Patients who have recurrent or severe first episode depression are likely to require life long maintenance treatment with antidepressants.

Occasionally, people with severe depression must be hospitalised in a behavioural health or psychiatric unit. This is considered when a person is suicidal or intends to harm himself or herself in some other way. It is also done when a depressed person is acting very irresponsibly.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
The side effects of different antidepressant drugs vary.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
A person recovering from depression should follow the recommendations he or she has received. Often these may include:
  • attending therapy
  • taking any antidepressant drug prescribed
  • resuming once pleasurable activities even if the person does not feel like doing so
  • spending time with friends and family, rather than withdrawing
  • joining a support group
  • creating or restoring a balanced lifestyle
  • eating regular, nutritious meals
  • exercising regularly
  • avoiding alcohol and drugs
  • establishing a regular sleep pattern
  • finding ways to reduce stress
How is the condition monitored?
People who have been clinically depressed often experience further episodes of depression. A person should try to be alert to subtle symptoms. If those symptoms arise, he or she should call their doctor and promptly try treatments or methods that helped with the previous depression.

Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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