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Depression is an illness that affects how a person feels, thinks, and acts. It’s different from normal feelings of sadness or grief. A person who has depression may have less energy. He or she may lose interest in daily activities and may feel sad and grouchy for a long time. Depression is a common illness. It affects men and women of all ages and backgrounds.

Many people, and sometimes their families, feel embarrassed or ashamed about having depression. But it isn’t a sign of personal weakness. It’s not a character flaw. A person who is depressed is not “crazy.” Depression is a medical illness. It’s caused by changes in the natural chemicals in the brain. Most experts believe that a combination of family history (a person’s genes) and stressful life events can cause depression.

Health problems may also cause depression or make it worse. It’s common for people with long-term (chronic) health problems like coronary artery disease, diabetes, cancer, or chronic pain to feel depressed.

It’s important to know that depression can be treated. The first step toward feeling better is often just seeing that the problem exists.

  • Symptoms

    What are the symptoms of depression?

    The symptoms of depression may be hard to notice at first. They can be different from person to person.

    The two most common symptoms of depression are:

    • Feeling sad, hopeless, or tearful nearly every day.
    • Losing interest in or not getting pleasure from most daily activities that you used to enjoy, and feeling this way nearly every day.

    If you have had these symptoms for at least 2 weeks, you might have depression.

    A serious symptom of depression is thinking about death and suicide. If you or someone you know talks about suicide or feeling hopeless, get help right away.

  • Causes

    What causes depression?

    When you have depression, there may be problems with activity levels in certain parts of your brain. Or chemicals in your brain may be out of balance.

    Most experts believe that family history (your genes) and stressful life events may cause depression.

    Certain medicines, such as steroids or opioids, can cause depression. If you stop using the medicine, the depression may go away.

  • Prevention

    How can you help prevent depression?

    Little is known about how to prevent depression, but getting exercise and avoiding alcohol and drugs may help. Exercise may also improve symptoms of mild depression. Alcohol and drugs can contribute to depression.

    You may be able to prevent depression from coming back or keep your symptoms from getting worse if you:

    • Take your medicine as prescribed.
    • Continue to take your medicine after your symptoms improve.
    • Continue a type of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy after your symptoms improve.
    • Eat a balanced diet.
    • Get regular exercise.
    • Get treatment right away if you notice that symptoms of depression are coming back or getting worse.
    • Have healthy sleep patterns.
    • Avoid drugs and alcohol.
  • Diagnosis

    How is depression diagnosed?

    If your doctor thinks you are depressed, you may be asked questions about your health and feelings. Your doctor may have you fill out a form. Your doctor also may:

    • Do a physical exam.
    • Do tests to make sure your depression isn't caused by a disease such as an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) or anemia. Depending on your history and risk factors, your doctor may order other tests.
    • Ask if you've had any thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
    • Ask if you have symptoms of bipolar disorder.
    • Ask you about symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
    • Ask you if you have recently lost a loved one.
    • Ask about your drug and alcohol use.
  • Treatment

    How is depression treated?

    Treatment for depression includes counseling, medicines, and lifestyle changes. Your treatment will depend on you and your symptoms. Counseling and medicine usually work well to treat depression. Sometimes counseling alone is enough.

    You may start to feel better within 1 to 3 weeks after you start taking antidepressant medicine. It can take as many as 6 to 8 weeks to see more improvement.

    You can do many things to help yourself when you feel depressed or are waiting for your medicine to work. These things include being active, getting enough sleep, and eating a balanced diet.

  • When to Call

    Depression treatment: When to call

    Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

    • You feel you cannot stop from hurting yourself or someone else.

    Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

    • You hear voices.
    • You feel much more depressed.

    Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

    • You are having problems with your depression medicine.
    • You are not getting better as expected.
  • Self-Care

    How can you care for yourself when you have depression?

    You can do many things to help yourself when you feel depressed or are waiting for your treatment to work. These things also help prevent depression from coming back.

    • Get regular exercise. Even something as easy as walking can help you feel better.
    • Eat a balanced diet.
    • Get enough sleep.
    • Avoid drinking alcohol or using illegal drugs or medicines that have not been prescribed to you.
    • Think positively. How you think can affect how you feel.
    • Get support from others.

    Taking good care of yourself is important as you recover from depression. If your doctor prescribed medicines, take them exactly as they are prescribed. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, including counseling. And call your doctor if you are having problems.

    Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.