How Is Depression Diagnosed and Treated?
By Lauren Krouse
Depression can trick you into believing you’re going to feel this way forever, but it’s actually one of the most treatable mental health conditions. Most people who have depression eventually begin to feel better. The key is to get the support you deserve.
Even if you’re not sure what’s going on or whether you need help, it’s always a good idea to reach out and check in. If you don’t know where to start or the idea of trying to figure it out feels overwhelming, the support of an adult or friend you trust can make a big difference.
With help, you can connect with a professional health-care provider, talk about what’s going on, and make a plan to start feeling better.
How Is Depression Diagnosed?
A lot of health-care providers can diagnose depression, including primary-care providers, licensed mental health counselors, and social workers. Your primary-care provider is a good place to start, so they can rule out anything else that may be making you feel this way and recommend some mental-health-care providers they know and trust.
At your appointment, they will ask some questions to get to know you, your health history, and what brings you in. They also may take a blood sample to make sure you’re not dealing with a physical health condition—such as a thyroid issue or vitamin deficiency—that can cause symptoms similar to depression.
Some questions your provider may ask:
- How have your mood, appetite, sleep, and energy levels been lately?
- What thoughts and feelings have you been struggling with?
- How long have you felt this way?
- When did your symptoms start?
- Was there anything significant that happened around that time?
- How often do you feel this way?
- Does the way you feel make it hard for you to get through your usual activities?
If you’re nervous about the appointment, it’s helpful to jot down a few answers to these questions and any questions you have before you go in.
If you’ve been experiencing symptoms of depression most of the time for over two weeks, you may be diagnosed with depression. After your health-care provider has confirmed a diagnosis, they may suggest a treatment plan or refer you to a mental-health-care provider—such as a therapist or psychiatrist—who’s trained to treat depression.
How Is Depression Treated?
There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for depression. The best treatment plan depends on what type of depression you’re experiencing and what makes sense for your medical history and lifestyle. In some cases, you can begin to feel better with a combination of therapy and lifestyle changes. If your depression is more severe—which is the case for plenty of people—it may be useful to add medication such as antidepressants.
One of the most common and effective ways to treat depression is psychotherapy, often referred to as therapy. There are different kinds of therapy, but most involve talking with a trained mental-health professional one on one. Therapy can give you the space to work through difficult memories, thoughts, and feelings. You can also learn how to manage your symptoms and set goals for your future. Depending on your situation, you may do well with individual therapy, group therapy, or family counseling.
If you feel anxious about starting therapy, you’re not alone. A lot of people feel that way and therapists know it, so you can be honest about it in your first session. It’s totally fine to start exactly where you are. It’s their job to listen and support you without judgment.
Medication isn’t always necessary to treat depression, but it can be helpful for many people in combination with therapy. Experts believe antidepressants work by increasing mood-boosting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. In many cases, having more of these neurotransmitters circulating in your brain can help you feel better.
Antidepressants generally take at least four to eight weeks to have an effect. During that time, your health-care provider will closely monitor your progress and any side effects you may have.
Sometimes you need to try a few different medications before you find one that works well for you. It can be frustrating, but it’s common and you can get through it with support and time. The key is stay in touch with your doctor and not give up.
If you feel better over time, your provider may suggest gradually decreasing (or tapering off) your medication.
Lifestyle changes also are an important part of depression treatment. A half-hour of exercise a few times a week, for example, has been shown to significantly lower symptoms of depression. Creating and sticking with a routine can help you make sure you’re getting enough sleep, which is critical to your mental health and can help you feel more stable and ready for challenges. Small changes can help you gradually take back your life and reconnect with the activities and people you love.
Treating Depression Can Take Time—but the Journey Is Worth It
Think of depression treatment like going on a long hike up a mountain. Depression can feel like you’re carrying a heavy backpack you never asked for. Sometimes it’s filled with so much weight that it’s hard to keep moving forward. Therapy, along with medication, can help slowly release the weight you’re carrying.
Think of your mental-health-care provider as your guide. They can help you pace yourself, track your progress, and hit mile markers. The terrain is varied and tougher to climb in some spots, and there’s no quick fix or escalator to fast-track you to the top. But over time, you can learn new skills, begin to enjoy parts of the process, start feeling better, and finally find yourself in a place where you like the view.
Check out these articles to learn more about depression and get the help you—or someone you care about—needs: