Depression: Everything You Need to Know About This Mental Health Problem

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Feeling down is a normal part of life. When something bad or sad happens, we wouldn't be human if it didn't lower our moods as a result. But it's when this low mood is constant—whether something bad or sad is happening or not—that a person may be suffering from depression. Whether you're depressed or you think a friend, family member or colleague may be suffering in silence, I've shared the causes, signs, symptoms and treatments below so you're armed with the knowledge to help if you can. If you or a loved one is suffering from depression and need to speak with someone, you can call the Mind helpline at 0300-123-3393 on Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about depression and how to get through it.

What causes Depression?

Depression is common. Approximately one in five adults develop a mental health problem like depression every year. There is no exact cause of depression. Some people may develop depression after an adverse life event such as bereavement or a divorce. In other cases, there may be no specific cause.

There is a genetic link to depression, which means the tendency to develop it may run in the family. Women tend to develop depression more often than men. Particularly common times for women to become depressed are after childbirth (postnatal depression) and during menopause.

On a chemical level, low levels of serotonin are seen in people with depression. Interestingly, 90% of our body's serotonin is produced in the gut, and one study published in Microbiome Journal linked gut health to brain health. You can read more about how gut health affects your brain here.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

The NHS describes the psychological symptoms of depression as:

  • continuous low mood or sadness
  • feeling hopeless and helpless
  • having low self-esteem 
  • feeling tearful
  • feeling guilt-ridden
  • feeling irritable and intolerant of others
  • having no motivation or interest in things
  • finding it difficult to make decisions
  • not enjoying the things in life that you used to
  • thoughts of harming yourself
  • thoughts of suicide

There are also physical symptoms of depression:

  • poor sleep, difficulty falling asleep, waking up during the night and early morning
  • low energy levels
  • reduced appetite or overeating
  • loss of sex drive
  • unexplained aches and pains

Social symptoms of depression:

  • social isolation
  • relationship problems
  • poor performance at work
  • drug and alcohol misuse

Treatment for Depression

Despite depression being so common, unfortunately, it is often misunderstood. I frequently see patients with depression who blame themselves and view it as a personal failure. I cannot stress enough that depression is a medical condition. It is not "just in your head" or something that you can "snap out of." Like all medical conditions, it needs to be recognised and treated thoroughly with the appropriate treatment.

Unfortunately, the treatment and recovery is often a longer process than other medical conditions, however, it can be overcome. Often the hardest part is recognising your symptoms and seeking help. Your GP is your first port of call. Depression is one of the most common health problems GPs see, so please don't feel hesitant when it comes to contacting your doctor. They will listen and support you and help work with you to find the treatment plan best suited to you.

Treatment often takes a dual approach of medication and psychological therapy.

SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors)

SSRIs such as sertraline and citalopram are the first line treatment of depression. They work by preventing the reuptake of serotonin in the brain so the levels rise.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a messenger chemical that carries signals between nerve cells in the brain). It's thought to have a good influence on mood, emotions and sleep.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a psychological therapy that is used to treat a variety of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, PTSD and anger management.

The principle of CBT involves understanding how thought processes lead to behaviour. The aim of treatment is to help the patient develop a strategy to initially recognise the trigger to their symptoms and then take action to control them.

A combination of medication and CBT is the effective way of treating depression.

Lifestyle Changes

Don't underestimate the small tweaks. They can often have a big impact on treating depression and keeping it at bay in the long term. Lifestyle steps include:

  • exercise, which naturally releases endorphins to lift mood and give a natural high
  • healthy eating
  • rest—adequate sleep and relaxation time
  • making time for you, whether that's reading, walking or gym time, taking time out and focussing on yourself can help you relax and refocus

Next up, yoga for depression—find out how it can help.