Depression is a serious illness with varying degrees. When it’s mild, it makes some areas of a person’s life challenging, according to Deborah Serani, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating mood disorders.
Mild depression typically doesn’t require professional help. It usually abates with holistic methods, such as exercise, meditation and light therapy, she said.
When it’s moderate, it significantly hampers daily life. When it’s severe, it becomes life threatening and requires immediate intervention, she said.
“Without oversimplifying things too much, I generally look at how much your symptoms are affecting your relationships, your daily activities, and how you think and feel,” said Lee H. Coleman, Ph.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist and assistant director and director of training at the California Institute of Technology’s student counseling center.
Some people might not realize they’re dealing with depression, but they might notice that they just don’t feel like themselves, he said.
According to Serani, it’s time to seek treatment when your depression is moderate, and makes it difficult to function on a daily basis. You might have trouble getting to school or work and keeping up with tasks and assignments. You might want to isolate yourself from others, she said.
These are additional obvious and not-so obvious signs that it’s time to seek help:
- You have thoughts of suicide. “People may have a passing thought from time to time about death, but if you start dwelling on it or thinking about ways to die, it’s important to get help now,” said Coleman, also author of the book Depression: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed.
- You feel an unshakeable sadness, Serani said. You’re feeling sad most of the time for over several weeks, and your sinking mood is affecting your work or relationships, Coleman said. You become uninterested or you’re too sad to concentrate, he said.
- You feel hopeless or helpless. According to Serani, your thoughts might sound something like this: “Why is everything so hard for me? How come I’m not feeling better?” You may worry that you’ll never feel good, again, and believe there’s no help for you, she said. “Often, helplessness is a negative circle. If you feel helpless, you get more depressed. When you get more depressed, you feel helpless.”
- You feel guilty, worthless or ashamed. Unfortunately, depression is sometimes misperceived as a character flaw (instead of a real, debilitating illness), said Serani, also author of the books Living with Depression and Depression and Your Child. “So many children and adults blame themselves for not being able to snap out of depressed episode.” They think: “I’m so stupid,” or “I can’t do anything right.”
- You experience extreme irritability, anger or impatience, Serani said. “These symptoms are often misunderstood and viewed as ‘burnout’ or
‘stress.’” However, when agitated individuals are further questioned, they “reveal more classical symptoms of depression like negative thinking, helplessness, sadness and hopelessness.”
- You don’t want to be around others. You might start taking time off from work, Coleman said. “Coworkers might ask if you’re feeling OK, or comment to you that you don’t seem like yourself.” (As he said, try not to let this upset you, but instead use it to check in with how you’re feeling.)
- You have a harder time concentrating on tasks, even ones you enjoy, Coleman said. “It’s common for people with depression to read, write and even think more slowly.”
- You’re tired, have less energy or don’t feel like getting out of bed, he said. “A lot of the time, the signs of depression show up in our bodies.”
- You have headaches or body aches, Serani said.
- Your sleeping patterns have changed. You might have trouble sleeping and wake up much earlier than you normally do, Coleman said. Or you start oversleeping. “The key is to look out for a major change in the way you sleep.”
- Your eating has changed. Some people with depression find food to be less appetizing and start to eat less, whereas others eat more than usual, Coleman said. Again, the factor to zero in on is change.
If you’ve noticed these signs, here are several suggestions on what to do next:
- See your family physician. “Getting a physical checkup [a full assessment with blood and urine lab work] is vital for diagnosing depression,” Serani said. If Coleman thinks a client may have depression, he also suggests they get a medical evaluation first. That’s because many medical illness mimic depressive symptoms. “Diabetes, anemia and hypothyroidism cause fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, changes in eating habits, listlessness and even depressed mood, just to name a few,” Serani said.
- Find a clinician who specializes in mood disorders. According to Serani, you can ask your physician for a recommendation, contact a nearby university, call the local mental health association or check out your insurance’s list of providers. “At your first appointment, you and your mental health therapist will evaluate your symptoms, create a treatment plan and immediately begin to work on ways to reduce your depression.” You can also consult an online directory, such as Psych Central’s Therapist Directory.
When considering if you need treatment, remember that, “you know yourself best,” Coleman said. So if you’ve been having a hard time with your day-to-day for more than several weeks, consider seeking help.
Also, remember that you’re not lazy or stupid or lacking somehow. Depression isn’t something you choose, Serani said. “This is a medical illness.” And while it’s a difficult and debilitating disorder, it is highly treatable. With proper treatment, you will feel better.
** If you’re having thoughts of suicide, please get help immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255.