Depression is a mental health condition that's described as a persistent feeling of sadness and unhappiness. Learn more about the causes and symptoms of depression, and what can be done to help.
What is depression?
Depression can be described as a persistent feeling of sadness and unhappiness, for weeks or months at a time. It has a range of symptoms and can affect people of all ages. Depression can have a significant impact on a person’s life, and at its most severe can lead people to contemplate or commit suicide.
It’s important to get medical help and support if you, or someone close to you, suffers with depression, or has experienced symptoms of it every day for a period of two weeks or more.
Some people may find their depression resolves following treatment. Others may have relapses throughout their lives.
What causes depression?
It’s not always clear what causes depression. But there are certain things that can increase risk of getting depression:
Family history – Depression can run in families, so if a close family member has depression, you’re more at risk of getting it
Traumatic life events – like a bereavement, job loss or relationship breakdown
Childbirth – Women who have given birth may suffer from a type of depression known as postnatal depression
Seasonality – most commonly over the winter months when it’s known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
Chronic illness – like cardiovascular disease, underactive thyroid or cancer
Alcohol and drugs – Alcohol can affect the chemistry of the brain predisposing people to depression. Both alcohol and recreational drugs can also aggravate depression symptoms by removing social support systems, like good relationships with family or a partner, and causing additional life stress (like financial problems)
But often, there’s no clear cause for depression.
Symptoms of depression
Psychological symptoms of depression:
- Low mood or sadness
- Lack of enjoyment in life, particularly from things that previously gave you pleasure
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of concentration
- Lack of self-esteem
- Feeling irritable
- Thinking of harming yourself
- Suicidal thoughts
Physical symptoms of depression:
- Feeling tired and fatigued
- Change in appetite
- Disturbed sleep
- Decreased libido
- Unexplained aches and pains
People with depression often find it hard to engage in social activities, and may spend less time with family and friends.
How to treat depression
For very mild symptoms of depression:
Simple things such as self-help books, regular exercise, a good sleep regime, mindfulness and reduced alcohol intake can help.
For mild to moderate depression:
A course of psychological therapy like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling is recommended. You can usually access this on the NHS with a self-referral or a referral from a GP.
There are also a number of apps and online resources for people with depression that can give psychological help or online CBT. Here’s a list of NHS-recommended resources that can help.
For moderate to severe depression:
If psychological therapy has not helped, you may be recommended a course of antidepressant medication. Antidepressants are taken daily and usually take up to 6 weeks to start working well.
Side effects can be common in the first few weeks, but often improve after this point. It’s important to keep regular reviews with a GP to make sure the medication is working sufficiently, and to adjust the dose if needed. If the medication is working well, it’s normally recommended to keep taking it for several months.
For those with severe depression symptoms:
If a person is having suicidal thoughts they should be assessed urgently – either through a GP, local crisis team (if they’re already known to mental health services), or A&E.
If drug or alcohol addiction exists alongside depression, this should also be addressed so that a GP or psychiatrist can signpost or refer to an appropriate service.
When to see a GP
- You’ve had symptoms of depression daily, for longer than two weeks
- Your symptoms are not improving despite having psychological therapy or taking medication
- Your symptoms are interfering with your daily life or work
- You have thoughts of harming yourself, others or of suicide.
- Last updated:
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi