Depressive Disorders

A depressive disorder is an illness that involves the body, mood, and thoughts. It interferes with daily life, normal functioning, and causes pain for both the person with the disorder and those who care about him or her.

A depressive disorder is not the same as a passing blue mood. It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. People with a depressive illness cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years. Depression is a common but serious illness, and most people who experience it need treatment to get better. Appropriate treatment, however, can help most people who suffer from depression.

Depressive disorders come in different forms, just as is the case with other illnesses such as heart disease. Three of the most common types of depressive disorders are described here. However, within these types there are variations in the number of symptoms as well as their severity and persistence.

Major depression is manifested by a combination of symptoms (see symptom list) that interfere with the ability to work, study, sleep, eat, and enjoy once pleasurable activities. Such a disabling episode of depression may occur only once but more commonly occurs several times in a lifetime.

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Dysthymic disorder, also called dysthymia, involves long-term (two years or longer) less severe symptoms that do not disable, but keep one from functioning normally or from feeling good. Many people with dysthymia also experience major depressive episodes at some time in their lives.

Some forms of depressive disorder exhibit slightly different characteristics than those described above, or they may develop under unique circumstances. However, not all scientists agree on how to characterize and define these forms of depression. They include:

Psychotic depression, which occurs when a severe depressive illness is accompanied by some form of psychosis, such as a break with reality, hallucinations, and delusions.

Postpartum depression, which is diagnosed if a new mother develops a major depressive episode within one month after delivery. It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of women experience postpartum depression after giving birth.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is characterized by the onset of a depressive illness during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. The depression generally lifts during spring and summer. SAD may be effectively treated with light therapy, but nearly half of those with SAD do not respond to light therapy alone. Antidepressant medication and psychotherapy can reduce SAD symptoms, either alone or in combination with light therapy.

Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness is not as prevalent as major depression or dysthymia, and characterized by cycling mood changes: severe highs (mania) and lows (depression).

Depressive Disorders. Last reviewed 10/27/2008

Sources:

  • Medscape Women's Health Depression
  • National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey
  • Archives of Internal Medicine
  • Psychopharmacology Bulletin
  • Journal of the American Medical Association
  • National Institute of Mental Health
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Biological Psychiatry
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