Everyone experiences feelings of sadness and hopelessness at times; especially when a major life stressor is involved. For some people, however, these feelings of sadness and worthlessness are more than a case of the blues; they are the hallmarks of a very common mental disorder – depressive disorders. Depressive disorders are illnesses that affect the mind, body, and thoughts in such a way that they interfere with daily life, normal functioning, and cause pain for both the person who has the disorder and those who love them. Some forms of depressive disorders are slightly different or they may develop due to unique life circumstances. The most common depressive disorders include:
Major depressive disorder (major depression or simply depression) involves a combination of symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to sleep, eat, work, and enjoy pleasurable activities. Major depressive disorder is often so debilitating that it prevents a person from functioning normally in his or her daily life. Some people only struggle through one episode of major depressive disorder during their lifetimes, while others may have multiple episodes of major depression.
Minor depression is a disorder that is characterized by symptoms persisting longer than two weeks that do not meet the criteria for major depressive disorder. However, without proper treatment, people who have minor depression are at a much greater risk for developing major depressive disorder.
Dysthymia or dysthymic disorder is characterized by long-term symptoms persisting two years or longer that may not be intense enough to cause disability, but can prevent feelings of wellness or normal functioning. People who have dysthymia may have one or more episodes of major depression during their lifetimes.
While many people who have a depressive disorder never seek treatment, it is a very treatable condition. With the right amount of medication, therapies, and lifestyle changes, people who have depression are able to go on to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives.
Major depressive disorder is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Every year, about 6.7% of the adults in the United States experience major depression; the average age of onset is 32 years of age. Overall, between 20 and 25% of adults may suffer an episodes of major depression at some time during their lifetime. In addition, 3.3% of teens aged 13 to 18 have experienced a seriously debilitating depressive episode.
Causes and Risk Factors for Depression
It’s generally believed that depression is caused by a combination of risk factors, genetic causes, environmental triggers, and physical changes in the body. The most common causes and risk factors for depression include:
Genetic: Depression and depressive disorders tend to run in families. People who have a first-degree relative who has depression are more likely to develop the disorder than others without a similar history. However, depressive disorders also occur in individuals without any family history.
Physical: Neuroimaging studies of the brains of people who have depression show a structural difference in the areas of the brain involved in sleep, appetite, and behavior. Additionally, decreased amounts of certain neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, can lead to depressive disorders.
Environmental: The trauma of certain negative life events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope with stressful situations can lead to depression in some people who have other risk factors for depression.
- Poor social support
- Single parenting
- Being female
- Hormone imbalances
- High periods of stress
- Abuse of drugs or alcohol
- Low self-esteem
- Personality traits such as being overly dependent, pessimistic, or self-critical
- Serious, chronic medical condition
- Certain types of medications
- Childhood trauma – especially neglect and abuse
Symptoms of Depressive Disorders
The symptoms of depressive disorder will vary tremendously based upon type of depressive disorder, availability of social support, proper coping mechanisms, symptom severity, and frequency of depressive episodes. Symptoms of depressive disorders may include:
- Spending increasing amounts of time sleeping
- Withdrawing from once-pleasurable activities
- Increasing challenges in meeting demands of work, home, social, and scholastic life
- Irritability and restlessness
- Angry outbursts
- Suicide attempts
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Changes in eating patterns
- Aches and pains
- Increased body movements
- Digestive problems
- Decreased ability to concentrate
- Slowed thinking and speaking
- Increased preoccupation with depressive feelings
- Decreased ability to make decisions
- Trouble recalling details
- Low self-esteem
- Poor self-image
- Feeling critical of oneself
- Overwhelming sadness
- Feeling “empty” inside
- Feelings of guilt
- Preoccupation with death, dying, suicide
Effects of Depressive Disorders
Depressive disorders are very treatable illnesses that, like other illnesses, require changes in lifestyle and therapeutic interventions. Without proper treatment, depressive disorders can worsen over time, causing immense problems in an individual’s life. The long-term effects of depressive disorders include:
- Social isolation
- Anxiety, panic disorder, or social phobia
- Addiction to drugs or alcohol
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
There are a number of other mental disorders that may occur alongside depressive disorders. Treatment of depression can improve the outcomes of co-occurring disorders. These may include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Drug addiction
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder