What Is Depression?

Some 15 million Americans a year struggle with depression, an illness that comes in many forms—from major depression and seasonal affective disorder, to dysthymia and bipolar disorder. Depression is an illness that increasingly afflicts people worldwide, interfering with concentration, motivation and many other aspects of everyday functioning. It is a complex disorder, involving many systems of the body, including the immune system, either as cause or effect. It disrupts sleep, and it interferes with appetite, in some cases causing weight loss, in others weight gain. Because of its complexity, a full understanding of depression has been elusive.

Scientists have some evidence that the condition is related to diet, both directly—through the nutrients we consume, such as omega-3 fats—and indirectly, through the composition of the bacteria in the gut. Of course, depression involves mood and thoughts as well as the body, and it  causes pain for both those with the disorder and those who care about them. Depression is increasingly common in children.

Everyone experiences an occasional blue mood; depression is a more pervasive experience of repetitive negative rumination, bleak outlook, and lack of energy. It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. People with depression cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better. There is some evidence that, painful as depression is, it serves a positive purpose, bringing with it ways of thinking that force people to focus on problems as a prelude to solving them.

Even in the most severe cases, depression is highly treatable. The condition is often cyclical, and early treatment may prevent or forestall recurrent episodes. Many studies show that the most effective treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, which addresses problematic thought patterns, with or without the use of antidepressant drugs. In addition, evidence is quickly accumulating that regular mindfulness meditation, on its own or combined with cognitive therapy, can stop depression before it starts by effectively disengaging attention from the repetitive negative thoughts that often set in motion the downward spiral of mood.

Recent posts on Depression

Ice Cream Shops Can Fight Youth Suicide, Too

By Michael Ungar Ph.D. on February 18, 2018 in Nurturing Resilience
We need ways to talk about suicide year round if prevention campaigns are going to work. Corporate partners can help.

The Shape of Bipolarity

By Russ Federman Ph.D., A.B.P.P. on February 17, 2018 in Bipolar You
Much of what is communicated about bipolar disorder doesn’t come close to conveying its complexities or subtleties.
Pavel Kubarkov/Shutterstock

Medication Is Not the End-All Be-All for Distress

Here's how to get the right help for your anxiety and depression.
123 RF stock photo

Facing the Pain of Child Abuse

It can be difficult to allow yourself to experience the pain of childhood abuse but having self-compassion can help.

Three Simple Ways to Enhance Mental Health Resilience

By Rob Whitley, Ph.D. on February 15, 2018 in Talking About Men
Research indicates that resilience is not a fixed attribute, but can be cultivated through simple self-initiated activities.

Do Psychiatric Service Dogs Really Help Veterans with PTSD?

By Hal Herzog Ph.D. on February 15, 2018 in Animals and Us
A new study by researchers at Purdue University offers the first empirical evidence that veterans with PTSD benefit from having a psychiatric service dog.

Mental Illness Didn't Make Him Do It

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, tragedy, it's natural to search for answers. Mental illness isn't one of them.

What Makes Us Think Such Negative Things About Ourselves?

By Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D. on February 14, 2018 in Think, Act, Be
Tired of always beating up on yourself? Identify the core beliefs that drive self-loathing, and work toward making friends with yourself starting today.

No Time for Sleep

By Dawn Kingston Ph.D. on February 13, 2018 in The Pregnant Pause
With a countdown of less than 9 months (depending on when pregnancy is detected!), many pregnant women give sleep a low priority, thinking that they’ll catch up while they’re “off”

Radical Changes in Psychiatric Diagnosis Are on the Horizon

Psychiatric diagnosis is still in the 20th century, but rapidly evolving tools leverage machine-learning and "big data" to begin to sketch out future advances.

What Political System Rules Your Psyche?

By Michael Karson Ph.D., J.D. on February 13, 2018 in Feeling Our Way
Since we are not unitary selves, but an assortment of response repertoires, emotions, and goals, we need some system of government to secure the blessings of liberty.

The Truth Shall Set You Free...

By Russell Grieger Ph.D. on February 13, 2018 in Happiness on Purpose
Panic attacks are painful, scary and unnecessary. In this blog, find out the cause and cure of all panic attacks.
eric maisel

Authoritarian Wounding as a Feminist Issue

Authoritarians, both male and female, are anti-female. Is it just that girls and women are easy prey? Or is more going on here?


By Cecilia Dintino PsyD on February 12, 2018 in Midlife Matters
It is our stories that define us, and our re-story that will set us anew. But where do we begin?
Leighton "Till Death Do Us Part"/wikimediacommons

Defeating Depression, Evading Anxiety

By Elizabeth Young on February 11, 2018 in Adaptations
He died suddenly, and the trauma of finding him dead hit me pretty hard.

Eight Ways to Counteract a Dreary Day

Do you know how to change your brain to brighten up a bleak day?

Facebook's Changes Could Be Bad for Your Mental Health

Facebook is making some changes in 2018 and studies show the changes to user's news feeds could be bad for their psychological well-being.

A Sound Argument

A stressful environment can break your heart

Spending Valentine’s Day as a Non-Tethered Woman? Be Kind!

Oh what a tangled, lonely web we weave when we beat ourselves up or berate ourselves over what we don't have.
“Mania and Melancholia”/ Wellcome Library, London/CC BY 4.0

Has Medicine Lost Its Mind?

By Robert C. Smith M.D. on February 07, 2018 in Patient Zero
Your physician is not trained to treat your mental health problems, but the psychiatrist shortage is severe.

How Do You Know When Your Depression Is Improving?

By Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D. on February 07, 2018 in Think, Act, Be
Like the change in seasons, it's hard to know definitively when depression has lifted. Here are eight signs to look for.

Caring Universities

Mental disorders are increasing at colleges worldwide.

Neuron Activity May Reveal Susceptibility to Depression

By Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D. on February 05, 2018 in Brain and Behavior
The response to chronic stress isn't good

Helping Your Child After a Psychiatric Hospitalization

By Marcia Morris M.D. on February 04, 2018 in College Wellness
What should you do if your college student is in a psychiatric hospital? You can be a tremendous source of support for your child during this stressful time.

5 Reasons We Should Take Pet Loss Seriously

By Guy Winch Ph.D. on February 04, 2018 in The Squeaky Wheel
There are reasons why losing a pet causes such intense grief.

The Invisible Wounds of Soldiers

By Jennifer A. Samp Ph.D. on February 03, 2018 in Conflict Matters
The honor of military service can often come with some challenges: Facing the dark side of the moral injuries that come with service.

Influenza and Your Psyche

By Steven Schlozman M.D. on February 02, 2018 in Grand Rounds
The flu can attack your psyche with impressive virulence.

5 Myths About Depression We Need to Shut Down Immediately

Here's why being clinically depressed requires no justification.

When Depression Might Be a Good Thing

There’s evidence cancer patients have a silent early indicator of depression.

Why Does Compassion Feel So Good? Here Are Five Reasons

By Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D. on February 01, 2018 in Think, Act, Be
Recent research has explored ways to increase our ability to show compassion, both for others and for ourselves.