How to spot the signs of depression

Oct 28, 2015 at 1:00 a.m. ET
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Mental illness is complex, with a wide range of symptoms, and people can experience depression in different ways.

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What is depression?

Although it's common to hear the phrase “I'm depressed” used by people who may simply be experiencing a temporary low mood, or having a rough day, depression is a real illness that often requires therapy to manage.

Depression may be triggered by a specific event, such as postnatal depression after the birth of a baby. Other mental illnesses may have depression as one of the symptoms, such as bipolar disorder, where there are spells of depression and excessively high mood (mania). Another type of depression is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where the sufferer finds their depression has a seasonal connection, typically associated with winter.

Warning signs and symptoms

  • Some of the words people with depression commonly use to describe their feelings are “numb,” “empty,” “helpless,” “agitated,” “restless” and “isolated.” 
  • According to mental health charity Mind, tearfulness, a lack of pleasure in things that are usually enjoyable, or simply life itself, and a sense of unreality, are all common signs of depression.
  • Many sufferers lose interest in sex, feel unable to relate to others and find themselves being unusually irritable or impatient.
  • Depression can have a huge impact on how a person behaves. If you are avoiding social events and activities you usually enjoy, cutting yourself off from others and finding it difficult to concentrate, remember things and make decisions, you may have depression.
  • Some sufferers self-harm, are preoccupied with thoughts of suicide and have a general feeling of “what’s the point?”
  • Physical signs of depression include difficulty sleeping, or sleeping much more than normal, a lack of appetite or energy, physical aches and pains that have no obvious physical cause and a reliance on alcohol or other drugs.

If you have depression you are likely to experience several of these symptoms but remember everyone is different. In some people the main signs are emotional, while others may have more physical symptoms. However the illness manifests itself, the symptoms typically persist for weeks or months and interfere with work, family and social life, says the NHS website.

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Depression can range from mild to severe. According to the NHS, mild depression has "some impact" on your daily life; moderate depression has a "significant impact" on your daily life; and severe depression makes it "almost impossible to get through daily life." Some people with severe depression may also have psychotic symptoms.

When to seek professional help

The NHS advises seeking help from your GP if you have been experiencing some of the signs of depression for most of the day, every day, for two weeks or longer. Many people are embarrassed to seek professional help — don't be. Your GP can discuss the best treatment options for you and help you work out how to get a support system in place.

If you think you or someone in your life may have depression, lots of amazing charities are there to help. Check out Mind, Rethink Mental Illness (England and Wales) and SAMH (Scotland).

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