According to the National Institute of Mental Health, during any 1-year period, 17.6 million American adults or 10% of the population suffer from a depressive illness. The cost in human suffering cannot be estimated. Depressive illnesses often interfere with normal functioning and cause pain and suffering not only to those who have a disorder, but also to those who care about them. Serious depression can destroy family life as well as the life of the ill person.

Possibly the saddest fact about depression is that much of this suffering is unnecessary. Most people with a depressive illness do not seek treatment, although the great majority–even those with the severest disorders–can be helped. Thanks to years of fruitful research, psychotherapy and sometimes the use of medication can ease the pain of depression.

Unfortunately, many people do not recognize that they have a treatable illness. Read this to see if you are one of the many undiagnosed depressed people in this country or if you know someone who is. The information briefly presented here may help you take the steps that may save your own or someone else’s life.

What is a Depressive Disorder?

A depressive disorder is a “whole-body” illness, involving your body, mood, and thoughts. It affects the way you eat and sleep, the way you feel about yourself, and the way you think about things. A depressive disorder is not the same as a passing blue mood. It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. People with a depressive illness cannot merely “pull themselves together” and get better. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years. Appropriate treatment, however, can help most people who suffer from depression.

Types of Depression

Depressive disorders come in different forms, just as do other illnesses, such as heart disease. This paper briefly describes three of the most prevalent types of depressive disorders. However, within these types there are variations in the number of symptoms, their severity, and persistence.

Major depression is manifested by a combination of symptoms (see symptom list) that interfere with the ability to work, sleep, eat, and enjoy once pleasurable activities. These disabling episodes of depression can occur once, twice, or several times in a lifetime.

A less severe type of depression, dysthymia, involves long-term, chronic symptoms that do not disable, but keep you from functioning at “full steam” or from feeling good. Sometimes people with dysthymia also experience major depressive episodes.

Another type is bipolar disorder, formerly called manic-depressive illness. Not nearly as prevalent as other forms of depressive disorders, bipolar disorders involve cycles of depression and elation or mania. Sometimes the mood switches are dramatic and rapid,

but most often they are gradual. When in the depressed cycle, you can have any or all of the symptoms of a depressive disorder. Mania often affects thinking, judgment, and social behavior in ways that cause serious problems and embarrassment. For example, unwise business or financial decisions may be made when an individual is in a manic phase. Bipolar disorder is often a chronic recurring condition.

Symptoms of Depression

Not everyone who is depressed experiences every symptom. Some people experience a few symptoms, some many. Also, severity of symptoms varies with individuals.

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain

Getting Help

If you have a combination of at least four of the above symptoms, which have lasted for two or more weeks, you may be suffering from the illness of depression. There is effective help available for treating depression, please seek professional assistance before the condition worsens.