Mental Illness: Facts about Depression

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Facts about Depression

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

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More than 20 million adult Americans will suffer from a depressive illness—major depression, bipolar disorder, or dysthymia—each year. A depressive disorder is not the same as "the blues". It involves the body, mood, and thoughts, and affects the way a person eats, sleeps, and thinks. People with a depressive illness cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years. Appropriate treatment, however, can help most people who suffer from depression.

  • In any given 1-year period, 9.5 percent of the population, or about 20.9 million American adults, suffer from a depressive illness.
  • The onset of depression may be occurring earlier in life in people born in recent decades compared to the past.
  • Nearly twice as many women are affected by a depressive illness each year.
  • Many women are particularly vulnerable after the birth of a baby. While transient "blues" are common, a full-blown depressive episode is not a normal occurrence and requires active intervention.
  • Depression typically shows up in men not as feeling hopeless and helpless, but as being irritable, angry, and discouraged; hence, depression may be difficult to recognize as such in men.
  • Depression is a frequent and serious complication of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, but is very treatable.
  • Depression increases the risk of having a heart attack. According to one recent study that covered a 13-year period, individuals with a history of major depression were four times as likely to suffer a heart attack compared to people without such a history.
  • Depression costs the nation more than $30 billion per year in direct and indirect costs, according to the most recent data available.
  • Major depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States and worldwide, according to a recent study by the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and Harvard University.


Not everyone who is depressed experiences every symptom. Some people experience a few symptoms, some many. Severity of symptoms varies with individuals and also over time. Some include:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • decreased energy, fatigue, being "slowed down"
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
  • thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
  • restlessness, irritability
  • persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain

Evaluation and Treatment

The first step to getting appropriate treatment for depression is a physical examination by a physician. Certain medications as well as some medical conditions such as a viral infection can cause the same symptoms as depression and the physician should rule out these possibilities through examination, interview and lab tests. If a physical cause for depression is ruled out, a psychological evaluation should be done, by the physician or by referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Treatment choice will depend on the outcome of the evaluation. There are a variety of antidepressant medications and psychotherapies that can be used to treat depressive disorders. Some people with milder forms may do well with psychotherapy alone. People with moderate to severe depression most often benefit from antidepressants. Most do best with combined treatment: medication to gain relatively quick symptom relief and psychotherapy to learn more effective ways to deal with life's problems, including depression.

How to Help Yourself

People rarely "snap out of" a depression but they can feel a little better day by day. Positive thinking will replace the negative thinking that is part of the depression and will disappear as your depression responds to treatment. In the meantime, here are some suggestions:

  • set realistic goals and assume a reasonable amount of responsibility
  • break large tasks into small ones, set some priorities, and do what you can as you can
  • try to be with other people and to confide in someone
  • participate in activities that make you feel better
  • mild exercise may help
  • expect your mood to improve gradually, not immediately
  • postpone important decisions until the depression has lifted
  • let your family and friends help you

Mental illness at a glance:

Introduction | Depression | Bipolar Illness | Suicide | Schizophrenia | Anxiety Disorders | Panic Disorder | Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder | Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder | Social Phobia | Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

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