We all experience periods of sadness, restlessness, and apathy. To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to tell the difference between these normal emotions and clinical depression. Though you should never try to diagnose yourself with a mental disorder without consulting a qualified mental health professional, learning to recognize the symptoms of depression can be enormously helpful, potentially even lifesaving.
Symptoms of major depressive disorder include a depressed or irritable mood nearly every day, lack of interest in once enjoyable activities, significant increase or decrease in appetite, extreme change in sleeping habits—sleeping too much or too little, lack of energy, constant feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, inability to concentrate, and frequent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts.
In order for a diagnosis to be made, at least five of these symptoms must be present for two or more weeks, causing significant distress and impairment for the affected individual. A diagnosis may or may not be made if the symptoms occur as a response to grief or substance abuse (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Though modern treatments for depression are shown to be effective for most people, depression is a complex neurological phenomenon, which makes it difficult for doctors to pinpoint the exact cause of the mental disorder. Depression is associated with an inadequate supply of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which can become depleted due to genetic factors, stressful life events, or a combination of both (Rogge, Zieve, & Ogilvie, 2014). In many cases, because of the chemical nature of depression, a depressive episode can seemingly pop up out of nowhere. Some people may experience depression without any stressful life event to blame, and many people diagnosed with depression report feeling frustrated when asked about the cause of their depressed mood. A good indicator that someone may be suffering from depression rather than normal sadness is that the person may not be able to provide a reason for feeling depressed.
Depression can be prevented with regular exercise, a healthy diet, engaging in enjoyable activities, being involved in your community, and having a friend to confide in when life gets tough (Rogge et al., 2014). However, it is important to remember that depression can still occur due to genetic factors.
The most common and effective treatment for major depressive disorder includes medication such as antidepressants and therapy. However, a variety of alternative interventions are available to individuals diagnosed with depression. A local therapist or mental health facility will be able to direct individuals toward various therapeutic options in the area. It is important to seek help as soon as possible once depressive symptoms have been identified, as these symptoms are likely to become progressively worse without intervention.
If you recognize symptoms of depression in a loved one, try talking to him or her about it in a compassionate, nonjudgmental way. If you suspect a loved one of feeling depressed or suicidal, it is usually best to outright ask if he or she is feeling this way. Simply mentioning suicide will not trigger a suicide attempt in a depressed person. Offer to bring your loved one to a therapy session, or provide the number to a suicide hotline if he or she prefers not to seek therapy.