What is Depression? Causes and Other Major Depression Facts

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Depression is classified as a mood disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by clinicians and medical professionals. Its clinical title is Major Depressive Disorder, or sometimes more casually called Major Depression. It is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a medical illness that predominantly causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. When it comes to mental health in general, there tends to be stigma around illnesses and disorders such as depression. For example, people often wonder if depression is a disease. It’s complicated. It is classified as a disorder, which, by definition, is a disturbance of regular functioning. Technically, depression is not a disease, but some may argue against that.

Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder

What does Major Depressive Disorder look like? These are the criteria listed in the DSM to describe what are common depressive symptoms

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed.
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting.
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much.
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue.
  • Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others).
  • Feeling worthless or guilty.
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

In order to be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, you must meet five (or more) of these criteria in the same two-week span, with one of them being depressed mood or loss of interest/pleasure. Depending upon the number of symptoms experienced from the list above, the diagnosis can have a specifier of mild, moderate, or severe. These symptoms must also cause significant clinical distress (which means having a negative impact on areas of your life such as work, school, relationships, etc.), as well as cannot be explained by substance use or a medical condition. 

Causes of Major Depressive Disorder

People often ask, “what are the causes of Major Depressive Disorder?” The answer to this varies greatly. There are multiple causes or risk factors for depression. Those who have experienced generational, systemic, or situational trauma are at risk, as well as those who have a genetic predisposition. That means having family members that have also experienced depression puts an individual at higher risk of also having depression. People with certain personality traits, such as lower self-esteem or those who are easily overwhelmed, may be more susceptible to depression. Certain physical illnesses, such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, or cancer, may also trigger depressive episodes. Physiologically, depression is thought to be chemical imbalances in the brain, however that tends to be a highly simplified way of describing it. Different brain structures also play a role. One particular study finds that the hippocampus is smaller in people with depression. While there are certain factors that put some at risk over others, it is important to note that depression can occur in anyone.

Who is affected by Depression?

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses. It impacts an estimated 1 in 15 adults each year, or approximately 6.7% of the population according to the American Psychiatric Association. One in six people will experience depression at some point during their lifetime. While depression can occur at any point during the life span, it most commonly appears during the late teens to mid-twenties for the average person. Women are at a higher risk of depression over men, some studies showing up to twice as likely. Considering the risk factors, it is not uncommon for marginalized communities to be at a higher risk of depression due to oppression and lack of resources for mental health care. 

How to treat depression

Although these statistics sound concerning, depression is one of the most treatable mental illnesses. There are numerous treatments available to consider when treating depression. Treatment for Major Depressive Disorder can involve medication, psychotherapy, light therapy, or brain stimulation therapies. The biological changes in the brain should get better with any type of treatment and the brain should return to healthy, normal functioning. Multiple therapies may need to be tested to treat your depression as what works for one person, may not be best for the next. It is best to consult with your doctor or therapist to determine what works best for you. 

One specific treatment for depression that is highly effective and produces limited to no side effects is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS therapy. This is a non-invasive brain stimulation therapy that targets the prefrontal cortex with magnetic pulses. These impulses stimulate nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex, as this area is often responsible for controlling mood. Research and clinical trials show that these impulses impact neurotransmitters in the brain and decrease symptoms of depression for an extended period of time. This is an FDA cleared, non-invasive pain-free solution that is covered by most major insurance companies. 

This blog post is meant to be educational in nature and does not replace the advice of a medical professional. See full disclaimer.

Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). What Is Depression. Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression

Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, June 24). What causes depression? Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression

The National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). NIMH » Depression. Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml#part_145397

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