What is depression?

Major depressive disorder, often referred to as depression, is a common but serious illness that can affect anyone.

Depression is not just “feeling blue” or “down in the dumps.” It is more than being sad or feeling grief after a loss — these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you.


Have no doubt: Clinical depression is a medical disorder — just like diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease are medical disorders — that, day after day, affects your thoughts, feelings, physical health, and behaviors.

About 1 in 20 Americans suffer from depression, and it affects twice as many women as men. Many people with a depressive illness never seek treatment. But the majority, even those with the most severe depression, can get better with treatment. Medications, psychotherapies, and other methods can effectively treat people with depression.

Symptoms include sadness, inactivity, difficulty thinking and concentrating, and feelings of despair. People with depression often have trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, fatigue, and agitation.

Depression may be caused by many things, including:

  • Family history and genetics.
  • Other general medical illnesses
  • Certain medicines
  • Drugs or alcohol
  • Other psychiatric conditions
  • Certain life conditions (such as extreme stress or grief), may bring on a depression or prevent a full recovery. In some people, depression occurs even when life is going well
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Depression is not your fault. It is not a weakness. It is a medical illness. Depression is treatable.
More than one type of depression

There are several forms of depressive disorders.

Major depression — Severe symptoms that interfere with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life. An episode can occur only once in a person’s lifetime, but more often, a person has several episodes.

Persistent depressive disorder — Depressed mood that lasts for at least 2 years. A person diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder may have episodes of major depression along with periods of less severe symptoms, but symptoms must last for 2 years. (Also called dysthymic disorder or dysthymia.)

Some forms of depression are slightly different, or they may develop under unique circumstances. They include:

  • Psychotic depression, which occurs when a person has severe depression plus some form of psychosis, such as having disturbing false beliefs or a break with reality (delusions), or hearing or seeing upsetting things that others cannot hear or see (hallucinations).
  • Postpartum depression, which is much more serious than the “baby blues” that many women experience after giving birth, when hormonal and physical changes and the new responsibility of caring for a newborn can be overwhelming. It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of women experience postpartum depression after giving birth.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is characterized by the onset of depression during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. The depression generally lifts during spring and summer. SAD may be effectively treated with light therapy, but nearly half of those with SAD do not get better with light therapy alone. Antidepressant medication and psychotherapy can reduce SAD symptoms, either alone or in combination with light therapy.
Beyond the winter blues: Seasonal affective disorder

Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness, is not as common as major depression or persistent depressive disorder. Bipolar disorder is characterized by cycling mood changes — from extreme highs (e.g., mania) to extreme lows (e.g., depression).

Who is at risk?

Major depressive disorder is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Each year, about 6.7% of US adults experience major depressive disorder. Women are 70 percent more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime.

Non-Hispanic blacks are 40% less likely than non-Hispanic whites to experience depression during their lifetime.  The average age of onset is 32 years old. Additionally, 3.3% of 13 to 18-year-olds have experienced a seriously debilitating depressive disorder.

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