While only a qualified medical or mental health provider can diagnose depression, there are certain warning signs that can help you identify whether you or someone you care about may be depressed.
The symptoms of depression may be different in different people, however. So while one individual may struggle to get out of bed, someone else might be able to go to work every day without co-workers noticing anything unusual.
Sometimes, symptoms that look like depression aren’t really depression. Substance abuse issues, medical problems, medication side effects, or other mental health conditions may produce symptoms that look similar to depression.
Signs & Symptoms
The DSM-5 recognizes several different types of depressive disorders. The two most common types include major depressive disorder (MDD) and persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia).
If you recognize signs that you or someone you may know be depressed, professional help may be warranted. Depression is very treatable, with medication, talk therapy, or a combination of the two, playing an instrumental role in reducing the following depressive symptoms.
Depressed mood is consistent with both major depression and persistent depressive disorder. In major depression, an individual must feel depressed most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report or observations made by others. Children or adolescents may appear more irritable than sad.
A person with a depressed mood may report feeling “sad” or “empty,” or may cry frequently. Having a low mood is one of the two core symptoms which is used to diagnose depression.
People with persistent depressive disorder experience a depressed mood more days than not for at least two years. Children may appear more irritable than depressed and they must experience it more days than not for at least one year. It may be chronic and less severe than a full-blown major depression, but could also represent symptoms of a major depression that have persisted for more than two years.
Decreased Interest or Pleasure
The second core symptom of major depressive disorder is a decreased interest or pleasure in things that were once enjoyed. A person exhibiting this symptom will show markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, daily activities. This can include favorite hobbies or sports or even sex.
Changes in Appetite
Significant changes in weight (a gain or loss of 5% or more in a month) while not attempting to gain or lose may be indicative of MDD. In children, this may also present as a failure to make expected weight gains.
Persistent depressive disorder may involve a poor appetite or overeating but there may not be the same marked change in weight that is present in MDD.
Sleep disturbances including difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, feeling sleepy despite a full night’s rest, or daytime sleepiness can indicate either MDD or dysthymia.
Psychomotor Agitation or Retardation
Agitation, restlessness, or lethargy that affects a person’s daily routine, behavior or appearance is a symptom of MDD. These symptoms can be evident in body movements, speech, and reaction time and must be observable by others.
A loss of energy and chronic feelings of fatigue can be symptoms of both persistent depressive disorder and major depressive disorder. Feeling tired most of the time can interfere with an individual’s ability to function normally.
Feelings of Worthlessness or Guilt
Excessive, inappropriate guilt, and feelings of worthlessness are common symptoms of major depressive disorder. The feelings of guilt may be so severe that the individual becomes delusional.
Both major depressive disorder and persistent depressive disorder involve difficulty concentrating and making decisions. Individuals with depression may recognize this in themselves or others around them may notice that they’re struggling to think clearly.
Recurrent Thoughts of Death
Recurrent thoughts of death that go beyond the fear of dying are associated with major depressive disorder. An individual with major depression may think about suicide, make a suicide attempt, or create a specific plan to kill themselves.
If you or someone you care about is thinking about suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 at any time of the day. A trained crisis counselor will offer you support and guide you to more resources to get the help you need for yourself or a loved one.
Complications & Comorbidities
Clinical depression is one of the most common complications reported by people with chronic diseases and conditions, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis. Often, the illness triggers depression, especially if you’re biologically vulnerable.
It’s not uncommon for people with depression to suffer from two disorders or illnesses at once. This is known as a comorbidity. For instance, someone with chronic pain may become depressed (and vice versa). Similarly, substance use disorders and depression often coexist. Someone with depression can turn to alcohol to self-medicate or an alcohol use disorder can cause someone to experience symptoms of depression.
While neither condition actually causes the other, they do often coexist and one condition can exacerbate the symptoms of the other.
Here are some common co-occurring conditions in people with clinical depression:
- Anxiety disorders
- Attention deficient and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Chronic pain
- Eating disorders and body dysmorphia
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Sleep disorders
- Substance use disorders
Common Myths or Misconceptions
Despite ongoing efforts by researchers, medical professionals, and patients, stigma continues to be a reality for people living with depression. This is partly because of the many damaging myths that exist. These misconceptions can prevent someone from recognizing the signs and symptoms of depression and getting the help they need. Here we debunk some common ones.
You Can “Get Over It”
Being diagnosed with depression does not mean that you are being crazy or weak—nor is it your fault or something you can simply snap out of on your own. Depression is caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters (mood-regulating chemicals) in your brain. Just like people diagnosed with depression can’t will their pancreas to produce more insulin, you can’t “try harder” to overcome depression. It’s a real disease that requires proper treatment.
Depression Only Causes Mental Symptoms
Depression symptoms certainly include mental symptoms like sadness, anxiety, irritability, and hopelessness, but physical symptoms are also a reality for people living with depression. This can include fatigue, body aches, headaches, and digestive troubles.
Only Women Get Depressed
Depression can occur in people of any race, ethnic, or economic group, and at any age. Women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression, but the jury is still out whether this is because they have higher rates of depression or because they report their symptoms and seek treatment more often. Children and adolescents can also be at risk for depression. Unfortunately, many children with depression go untreated because adults don’t recognize the warning signs, which are often different for children than adults.
Depression Is Untreatable
Although depression can make you feel hopeless, there is hope for those who seek a proper diagnosis and comply with treatment. In fact, depression is the most treatable type of mental illness; 60% to 70% percent of people with depression are treated successfully. What’s more, treatment doesn’t just involve taking medication for the rest of your life. Therapy and lifestyle modifications also play a key role in managing symptoms and preventing relapse.