This serious mental illness affects about 7 percent of the U.S. adult population and often accompanies physical conditions like diabetes.
Depression is relatively common among American adults, with 14.8 million people — 6.7 percent of the adult population — experiencing a major depressive disorder in any given year. Both men and women can have depression, but it is more common among women.
People who are depressed experience sadness or loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed. While just about everyone experiences these feelings every once in a while, people who are depressed have these feelings on an ongoing basis, and the symptoms of depression affect how they function in daily life.
Understanding the Causes of Depression
A number of factors are thought to contribute to the development of depression, including:
- Genetics. Depression tends to run in families, so researchers believe that certain genes may be associated with developing it.
- Brain abnormalities. Scientists have found that people who are depressed have certain brain characteristics that are different from people who are not depressed. Imbalances of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, which are brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, are thought to be involved with the development of depression.
- Stressful situations. Stressful events, such as the loss of a loved one, a major life change, or a serious illness, have been known to trigger depression. While some people have normal and temporary feelings of sadness and loss after a stressful event, others will experience clinical depression.
- Gender. Because depression affects women more than men — at least two times more often — depression in women could be related to gender-specific factors, like menstrual cycles and pregnancy, or differences in how women and men react to stressful situations.
Researchers are working to identify other factors that contribute to the risk of depression. The hope is that future research will lead to new strategies for preventing and treating depression.
Understanding the Types of Depression
Major depression is a serious mental illness in which a person experiences multiple depressive symptoms for at least two weeks. Other types of depression include:
- Bipolar disorder, alternating episodes of emotional “highs” (mania) and “lows” (depression).
- Dysthymia, mild depression symptoms that last two years or longer.
- Postpartum depression, a type of depression that occurs in the mother after her baby is born.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a major depression that occurs during seasons with low sunlight.
Medical experts have established nine symptoms of depression, four psychological and five physical. To have depression, a person must be in a depressed state or unable to experience pleasure, such as sex, and also have four other symptoms for at least two weeks. Possible symptoms are:
- Feeling guilty, hopeless, and worthless
- Having recurring suicidal thoughts
- Having trouble sleeping, either too much or too little
- Experiencing appetite/weight changes
- Having trouble paying attention and concentrating
- Feeling little energy or unexplained tiredness
- Agitation or slowing down of body movements
Understanding Depression: Co-existing Conditions
People with depression often have other physical or mental illnesses such as:
- Anxiety disorders
- Alcohol and/or substance abuse or dependence
- Heart disease
- Parkinson’s disease
Having depression makes these other serious illnesses more difficult to treat, and increases the risk of dying from these other conditions.
Seeking Help for Depression
Depression is a serious illness that should be treated by medical professionals. Whether your case of depression is severe or mild, treatment can help.
If you are experiencing persistent problems associated with depression, talk with your family doctor. Primary care physicians write more prescriptions forantidepressants than other health care professionals.
Your doctor can discuss your symptoms with you, rule out other medical conditions, or refer you to a mental health professional. There are several treatments for depression, including medications, psychotherapy, light therapy, and electroconvulsive therapy, that are very effective for depression.
The first step is the most important: getting help to get better.