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Understanding Depression

Depression is an illness that causes you to feel sad, lose interest in activities that you've always enjoyed, withdraw from others, and have little energy. It's different from normal feelings of sadness, grief, or low energy. Depression can also cause people to feel hopeless about the future and even think about suicide.

Many people, and sometimes their families, feel embarrassed or ashamed about having depression. Don't let these feelings stand in the way of getting treatment. Remember that depression is a common illness. It affects the young and old, men and women, all ethnic groups, and all professions.

If you think you may be depressed, tell your health care provider. Treatment can help you enjoy life again. The sooner you get treatment, the sooner you will feel better.

What causes depression?

Depression is a disease. It's not caused by personal weakness and is not a character flaw. Most experts believe a combination of family history (your genes), early life experiences, and stressful life events may cause depression. Life events can include:

  • Childbirth, a death in the family, work, or relationships

  • Finding out you have a long-term health problem, such as arthritis, heart disease, or cancer

  • Health problems, such as anemia and an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). Treating the health problem can usually cure the depression.

Just because you have a family member with depression or have stressful life events doesn't mean you'll get depression, and sometimes you can become depressed without an obvious reason. Whatever the cause, when you are experiencing depression there is evidence that chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters are out of balance.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of depression may be hard to notice at first. They vary among people, and you may confuse them with just feeling "off" or with another health problem.

All people with depression have at least one of these two symptoms:

  • Feeling sad or hopeless nearly every day for at least 2 weeks.

  • Losing interest in or not getting pleasure from most daily activities nearly every day for at least 2 weeks.

You also may:

  • Lose or gain weight. You also may feel like eating more or less than usual almost every day.

  • Sleep too much or not enough almost every day.

  • Feel restless and not be able to sit still, or you may sit quietly and feel that moving takes great effort. Others can easily see this behavior.

  • Feel tired or as if you have no energy almost every day.

  • Feel unworthy or guilty nearly every day. You may have low self-esteem and worry that people don't like you.

  • Find it hard to focus, remember things, or make decisions nearly every day. You may feel anxious about things.

  • Have thoughts of death or wanting to hurt yourself.

If you have some of these symptoms for at least 2 weeks, talk with your health care provider. Treatment may be right for you.


Depression can be treated in various ways. Counseling, psychotherapy, and/or antidepressant medicines are all used. Lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise, also may help. Your health care provider or mental health provider will help you find the best treatment.

If you have mild or moderate depression, your health care provider or a mental health care provider, such as a counselor or psychologist, may treat you. If you have severe depression or if treatment is not helping, you may need to see a psychiatrist. Some people need to be treated in the hospital if their symptoms continue to be severe and don't respond to other treatments..

Work with your health care team to find the best treatment for you. It may take a few tries, and it can take several weeks for the medicine to start working. Try to be patient and keep following your treatment plan.

Depression can return (relapse). How likely you are to get depression again increases each time you have a bout of depression. Taking your medicines and continuing some types of therapy after you feel better can help keep that from happening. Some people need to take medicine for the rest of their lives. This does not stop them from living full and happy lives.

Let your health care provider know if you think you are depressed. Depression is easy to overlook. The earlier you are treated, the sooner you will get better.

How to help a loved one

If someone you care for is depressed, the best thing you can do is help the person get or stay in treatment. Learn about the disease. Talk with the person and gently encourage him or her to do things and see people. Don't get upset with the person. The behavior you see is the disease, not the person. 

Do you have thoughts about suicide?

If you or a loved one has thoughts about death or suicide, call 911 or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) and press 1, or use other emergency services. Or you can chat with a trained counselor online at

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 7/1/2018
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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