Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States, affecting an estimated 17 million Americans each year.
While we may all experience sadness at one time or another, depression becomes problematic when it's persistent. If the feelings of ongoing sadness are accompanied by a loss of interest in daily activities and the inability to carry on with life, depression may be the culprit.
The Difference Between Sadness and Depression
Since sadness is one of the most common symptoms of depression, how do you differentiate the two?
Sadness occurs in response to an unfortunate or sad event that happened in your life. It could be a break-up, getting laid off from a job you loved, or even reading a sad story. Sadness can usually be traced back to a specific event, while that's not always the case with depression.
Sadness may stick around a day or two, maybe even a week. Still, it doesn't affect your ability to go on with your day, fulfilling your responsibilities. The sadness you experience with depression is more profound and creates a conflicted internal environment where you may question your self-worth and whether life is worth living at all. Unlike sadness, these feelings can persist for weeks or even months at a time.
Symptoms of Depression
Some of the symptoms most associated with depression include:
- Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
- A general feeling of unshakeable sadness or hopelessness that can't be traced back to any specific event
- Loss of motivation
- Indulging in bad habits such as overeating or overspending
- Feeling low on energy most days
- Changed sleeping habits like sleeping more than usual or insomnia
- Loss of appetite
- Negative thinking, unable to see the good in life
- In the worst cases, it can be accompanied by thoughts of death and suicidal ideation.
Causes of depression
There is no one specific cause for depression although, there are many reasons why people may experience it in their lifetimes.
You may have heard the term "chemical imbalance," and while this is somewhat the case, depression is far more nuanced. In addition to a possible chemical imbalance, studies have shown that specific genes can determine a person's vulnerability to experiencing low moods throughout their lifetime.
However, depression can also be brought on by traumatic events, such as the loss of a loved one, through substance abuse, in response to medical issues, and as a side effect of certain medications.
Types of Depression
Depression can appear in a few forms. Understanding which kind is affecting you is the first step for determining a course of treatment. Below are some of the most diagnosed forms of depression.
Major Depressive Disorder
Major Depression, or clinical depression, is the most diagnosed type of depression. If you suffer from major depression, it may be exceedingly difficult to find sources of joy in life, as if darkness permanently accompanies you wherever you go. You likely experience a low mood on most days and have lost interest in the things you usually enjoy. This type of depression is chronic and may persist indefinitely or may come and go in periods.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Also known as SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder typically occurs in winter. The days are shorter, there's less sunshine, and you're more likely to spend time cooped up indoors.
During transitional weather periods such as fall to winter, it may be difficult for the body to readjust to a new day/night rhythm, and the functioning of the chemicals responsible for balancing your mood and sleep cycles, such as serotonin and melatonin, may be affected.
It's also believed that a lack of vitamin D, best received through direct skin exposure to the sun, could contribute to the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Postpartum depression typically occurs just after pregnancy. One of the telling symptoms is a mother's inability to feel connected to their newborn. A mother with postpartum depression may experience overwhelming sadness and anxiety. She may find it challenging to care for herself or the baby, and in some cases, may even have thoughts of harming the baby.
Postpartum depression is likely caused by the sudden drop in progesterone and estrogen after a mother has given birth. This hormonal change can lead to other chemical fluctuations that lead to mood imbalances.
Bipolar disorder is made up of two components; a manic and a depressive component, where one's mood fluctuates to extreme highs, followed by extreme lows. This mood disorder is treated differently than major depression, usually with a combination of medications to help regulate the highs and the lows.
A mental health professional or general practitioner may make a depression diagnosis after discussing your symptoms with you and evaluating lifestyle or health factors that could be directly contributing to your feelings of depression. A physician may recommend blood work and other tests to rule out other underlying conditions first.
The criteria for diagnosing depression follow:
- The symptoms cause enough distress to interfere with areas of life such as work and social life.
- Feeling depressed almost daily for most of the day.
- A loss of interest in otherwise enjoyable activities.
- Weight gain or loss that isn't intentional but instead due to a lack of or increase of appetite.
- Experiencing fatigue and low energy every day or most days
- Inability to focus, concentrate or make sound decisions
- Slower mobility that's noticeable to others
- Experiencing feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
Five or more of the symptoms must be present for two weeks or longer for a clinical depression diagnosis to be made.
Treatment of Depression
Some cases of depression can be treated and managed exclusively through therapy. While others are managed through a combination of medication and psychotherapy. In rare cases, depression may be managed through medication alone. Many living with depression have found that the combination of therapy and medication has been an effective method for regaining emotional stability.
How We Can Help
If you think you may be suffering from depression and would like to speak to a professional about treatment, National Mental Health can help!
We're a full-service mental health provider providing psychotherapy and medication management services through in-person and online therapy.
We understand the growing need for accessible and affordable mental health for all, and that's why we're proud to offer the option of telehealth psychiatry to our patients. You can speak with one of our counselors at a time that works best for you and from the comfort of your own home.