(Major Depressive Affective Disorder; Unipolar Disorder; Unipolar Mood Disorder)
Depression is a mental illness marked by feelings of profound sadness and lack of interest in activities. It is a persistent low mood that interferes with the ability to function and appreciate things in life. It may cause a wide range of symptoms, both physical and emotional. It can last for weeks, months, or years. People with depression rarely recover without treatment.
The exact cause of depression is not known. It may be due to a certain type of brain chemistry. While the exact cause is not clearly established, factors that may play a role in depression include:
Depression is more common in females. There are a range of factors that may increase your risk of depression. Examples include:
Depression can differ from person to person. Some people have only a few symptoms, while others have many.
Symptoms can change over time and may include:
There is no blood test or diagnostic test for depression. The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, giving special attention to:
Specific mental health exams may be done. This will help the doctor get detailed information about your speech, thoughts, memory, and mood. A physical exam and other tests can help rule out other causes.
Treatment may involve the use of medication and/or psychotherapy.
Severe depression can require hospital care, especially if you are at risk of hurting yourself or others.
Antidepressant medications may be most effective in people with severe depression. These medications can take 2-6 weeks to reach their maximum effectiveness. There are many different types of medications to treat depression. You will work with your doctor to find the medication that benefits you the most and has the least side effects.
Psychotherapy for depression consists of various types of counseling. These include cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy, psychodynamic therapy, or a combination of these. Therapy is designed to help you cope with difficulties in relationships, change negative thinking and behavior patterns, and resolve difficult feelings.
Diet and Exercise
If you want to take supplements or change your diet, talk to your doctor first.
Dietary Supplements and Herbal Therapy
The herb St. John's wort may be an effective alternative to standard medications with fewer side effects. However, St. John's wort may reduce the effectiveness of many drugs, such as antidepressants, birth control pills, blood thinners, and other medications. It is important that you talk to your doctor before trying any herb.
There is also some evidence that dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone that is available as a dietary supplement, may help some people.
A regular exercise program has been shown to relieve some of the symptoms. It should play a large role in the overall management of depression.
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)
ECT is the use of an electric stimulus to produce a generalized seizure. It may be used in people with severe or life-threatening depression. ECT is also used for people who cannot take or do not respond to medication. It is considered a safe and effective procedure.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)
VNS is used as therapy for depression when multiple trials of medication do not work. A pacemaker-like device stimulates the vagus nerve in the neck.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
TMS involves the application of low-frequency magnetic pulses to the brain. The change in electrical field stimulates nerves. There are a number of studies that show the benefits of TMS for the treatment of depression. It may be used if you have not gotten better with medications and psychotherapy.
Other Treatment Options
Bright Light Therapy
Your doctor may recommend bright light therapy. This involves being exposed to high levels of light from a special light box that has a screen on it.
Meditation may help to improve the symptoms of depression.
Strategies to reduce your chance of becoming depressed include:
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
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Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD