Diagnosing and Treating Depression

It is estimated that one in 10 American adults suffer from depression; a mood disorder caused in part by a malfunction of the neurotransmitters in the brain. This malfunction causes the chemistry of the brain to be out of balance, leading to feelings of sadness, disinterest, and/or worthlessness. A number of factors can cause these imbalances. It has been proven that stress from any number of sources can lead to depression. A person may also be at an increased risk if they have been the victims of abuse, have dealt with the death of a loved one or another significant loss, have felt social isolation, or experienced other serious illnesses. Even happy events, if stressful enough, can cause these chemical imbalances.

The word depression is often used to denote major depressive disorder, but there are other types of depression that can affect people throughout their lives. For instance, postpartum depression is a period of chemical imbalance in a woman's body following the birth of a child. It is brought on by the complex and radical upheavals of her brain chemistry, hormones, and physiology after giving birth.

There is also seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is described as a period of sadness and low energy that occurs for a person at the same time every year. Typically, SAD occurs starting at the end of fall and lasting through the winter, but it can occur in the summertime as well.

Some possible symptoms of depression include the lack of ability to concentrate or to enjoy things that were once enjoyable, the prevalence of insomnia, feelings of pessimism, and/or feelings of guilt or worthlessness, and a decrease in energy. Perhaps the most feared and devastating symptom of this disorder is the presence of suicidal thoughts and/or plans.

A diagnosis can be made by a mental health care professional who will ask a series of questions touching on family history and focusing on a patient's day-in-day-out feelings. Because mental illness cannot be diagnosed with the same methods used to locate bacteria or a broken bone, a mental health professional will go through questions based on the basic symptoms of depression, and will ask a patient if they have had suicidal thoughts or made suicidal plans in order to assess the severity of the patient's illness.

Treatment will usually include psychotherapy or antidepressant medications. In many cases, the best results are achieved when a person undergoes psychotherapy in tandem with antidepressants. Persons with severe depression that do not respond to these types of treatments will occasionally undergo more radical procedures, including electroconvulsive therapy. While the history of electroconvulsive therapy has given it a stigma of needless abuse, today it is practiced in extremely controlled conditions and is proven to give significant aid to those suffering from this disorder.

Although depression and its effects are felt deeply, patients need not live their whole lives under the effect of severe symptoms. Through proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment, most people can go on to live normal, happy, fulfilled lives.