Depression

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Understanding Depression Slideshow

Quick GuideDepression Guide: Signs, Symptoms, and Testing

Depression Guide: Signs, Symptoms, and Testing

What is a depressive disorder?

Depressive disorders are mood disorders that have been with mankind since the beginning of recorded history. In the Bible, King David, as well as Job, suffered from this affliction. Hippocrates referred to depression as melancholia, which literally means black bile. Black bile, along with blood, phlegm, and yellow bile were the four humors (fluids) that described the basic medical physiology theory of that time. Depression, also referred to as clinical depression, has been portrayed in literature and the arts for hundreds of years, but what do we mean today when we refer to a depressive disorder? In the 19th century, depression was seen as an inherited weakness of temperament. In the first half of the 20th century, Freud linked the development of depression to guilt and conflict. John Cheever, the author and a modern sufferer of depressive disorder, wrote of conflict and experiences with his parents as influencing his becoming clinically depressed.

In the 1950s and '60s, depression was divided into two types, endogenous and neurotic. Endogenous means that the depression comes from within the body, perhaps of genetic origin, or comes out of nowhere. Neurotic or reactive depression has a clear environmental precipitating factor, such as the death of a spouse, or other significant loss, such as the loss of a job. In the 1970s and '80s, the focus of attention shifted from the cause of depression to its effects on the afflicted people. That is to say, whatever the cause in a particular case, what are the symptoms and impaired functions that experts can agree make up a depressive illness? Although these issues are sometimes disputed by experts, most agree on the following:

  1. A depressive disorder is a syndrome (group of symptoms) that is characterized by sad and/or irritable mood exceeding normal sadness or grief. More specifically, the sadness of depression is characterized by a greater intensity and duration and by more severe symptoms and functional problems than is normal.
  2. Depressive signs and symptoms not only include negative thoughts, moods, and behaviors but also by specific changes in bodily functions (for example, excessive crying spells, body aches, low energy or libido, as well as problems with eating, weight, or sleeping). The changes in functioning associated with clinical depression are often called neurovegetative signs. This means that the nervous system changes in the brain are thought to cause many physical symptoms that result in a decreased or increased activity level and other problems with functioning.
  3. People with certain depressive disorders, especially bipolar depression (manic depression), seem to have an inherited vulnerability to this condition.
  4. Depressive illnesses are a huge public-health problem, due to its affecting millions of people. Facts about depression include that about 10% of adults, up to 8% of teens, and 2% of preteen children experience some kind of depressive disorder. Postpartum depression is the most common mental health disorder to afflict women after childbirth.
    • The statistics on the costs due to depression in the United States include huge amounts of direct costs, which are for treatment, and indirect costs, such as lost productivity and absenteeism from work or school.
    • Adolescents who suffer from depression are at risk for developing and maintaining obesity.
    • In a major medical study, depression caused significant problems in the functioning (morbidity) of those affected more often than did arthritis, hypertension, chronic lung disease, and diabetes, and in some ways as often as coronary artery disease.
    • Depression can increase the risks for developing coronary artery disease and asthma, contracting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and many other medical illnesses. Other complications of depression include its tendency to increase the morbidity (illness/negative health effects) and mortality (death) from these and many other medical conditions.
    • Depression can coexist with virtually every other mental health condition, aggravating the status of those who suffer the combination of both depression and the other mental illness.
    • Depression in the elderly tends to be chronic, has a low rate of recovery, and is often undertreated. This is of particular concern given that elderly men, particularly elderly white men have the highest suicide rate.
  5. Depression is usually first identified in a primary-care setting, not in a mental health professional's office. Moreover, it often assumes various disguises, which causes depression to be frequently underdiagnosed.
  6. In spite of clear research evidence and clinical guidelines regarding treatment, depression is often undertreated. Hopefully, this situation can change for the better.
  7. For full recovery from a mood disorder, regardless of whether there is a precipitating factor or it seems to come out of the blue, treatment with medication, phototherapy, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and/or transcranial magnetic stimulation, (see discussion below) as well as psychotherapy are necessary.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/17/2016

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