How to recognize the symptoms of depression

Depression is one of the most common mental-health disorders in the world, and its prevalence is rising. In the U.S., the likelihood of suffering a major episode of depression approaches 1 in 5. Yet, many Americans are not aware of the defining symptoms of this common condition.

It is not uncommon for a depressed person to primarily complain of tiredness or fatigue. This is one of a set of symptoms that are classic for depression and represent the mental-health criteria for diagnosis.

Sadness is among the most common symptom of depression. Many people also have unexplained episodes of crying. Loss of interest in activities the person used to enjoy is frequently experienced.

Often, patients with depression report feelings of guilt. A very common symptom is a loss of energy experienced by some as a constant fatigue. Patients with depression often have problems with concentration, such as inability to focus on work or studies, or have difficulty staying on task while reading or doing a project, for example. Appetite may be either very poor or excessive.

Forgetfulness and the inability to perform usual mental tasks can impair the person’s functional ability further. Finally, some patients with depression may experience thoughts of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

The presence of a majority of these symptoms on a daily basis for at least six weeks is considered characteristic of depression.

Because many people suffering depression don’t recognize the symptoms or fail to seek help because of concern about social stigma or rejection, it is important for loved ones to recognize these symptoms and assist the depressed person in seeking help. Of particular concern are those with thoughts of suicide. These people need immediate counseling and a plan for safety.

Children and adolescents are not immune to depression, and it is especially important for parents to recognize those at risk. Because adolescents often seek privacy as part of their normal developmental progression to adulthood, parents need to watch carefully and ask questions of their child when they have concerns.

Fortunately, depression is treatable. I often counsel my patients that medication alone is a poor plan for managing the depressed person. We do know many people suffer from so-called clinical depression, in which depression is related to a chemical imbalance in the brain. These are often people with a family history of depression or anxiety, which can be closely related. Medication can correct this imbalance. However, because depression often exists in the setting of grief, loss or social isolation, counseling from trained professionals also is advised.

Perhaps the most important lesson about depression is that it is a disease – much like high blood pressure or heart problems.

We must continue to address the social stigma preventing many sufferers of depression from seeking care.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.

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