What are the basic signs and symptoms of depression?
Individuals with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. In addition, the severity and frequency of symptoms, and how long they last, will vary depending on the individual and his/her particular illness. Signs and symptoms of depression include:
How is depression diagnosed and treated?
- Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” feelings
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
- Irritability, restlessness, anxiety
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
- Insomnia, waking up during the night, 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
Depressive illnesses, even the most severe cases, are highly treatable disorders. As with many illnesses, the earlier that treatment can begin, the more effective it is and the greater the likelihood that a recurrence of the depression 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. In addition, it is important to rule out depression that is associated with another mental illness called bipolar disorder. A doctor can rule out these possibilities by conducting a physical examination, interview, and/or lab tests, depending on the medical condition. If a medical condition and bipolar disorder can be ruled out, the physician should conduct a psychological evaluation or refer the person to a mental health professional.
The doctor or mental health professional will conduct a complete diagnostic evaluation. He or she should get a complete history of symptoms, including when they started, how long they have lasted, their severity, whether they have occurred before, and if so, how they were treated. He or she should also ask if there is a family history of depression. In addition, he or she should ask if the person is using alcohol or drugs, and whether the person is thinking about death or suicide.
Once diagnosed, a person with depression can be treated with a number of methods. The most common treatment methods 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) and include:
- fluoxetine (Prozac)
- sertraline (Zoloft)
- paroxetine (Paxil)
- escitalopram (Lexapro)
- fluvoxamine (Luvox)
- Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are similar to SSRIs and include:
- venlafaxine (Effexor)
- duloxetine (Cymbalta)
SSRIs and SNRIs tend to have fewer side effects and are more popular than the older classes of antidepressants, such as tricyclics - named for their chemical structure - and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). However, medications affect everyone differently. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to medication. Therefore, for some people, tricyclics or MAOIs may be the best choice.
People taking MAOIs must adhere to significant food and medicinal restrictions to avoid potentially serious interactions. They must avoid certain foods that contain high levels of the chemical tyramine, which is found in many cheeses, wines and pickles, and some medications including decongestants. Most MAOIs interact with tyramine in such a way that may cause a sharp increase in blood pressure, which may lead to a stroke. A doctor should give a person taking an MAOI a complete list of prohibited foods, medicines and substances.
For all classes of antidepressants, people must take regular doses for at least three to four weeks, sometimes longer, before they are likely to experience a full effect. They should continue taking the medication for an amount of time specified by their doctor, even if they are feeling better, to prevent a relapse of the depression. The decision to stop taking medication should be made by the person and her doctor together, and should be done only under the doctor's supervision. Some medications need to be gradually stopped to give the body time to adjust. Although they 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, people should be open to trying another. Research funded by NIMH has shown that those who did not get well after taking a first medication often fared better after they switched to a different medication or added another medication to their existing one.
Sometimes other medications, such as stimulants or antianxiety medications, are used in conjunction with an antidepressant, especially if the person has a coexisting illness. However, neither antianxiety medications nor stimulants are effective against depression when taken alone, and both should be taken only under a doctor's close supervision.
Information taken from National Institute of Mental Health