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What is Major Depression?

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 12/3/2010

It's not always an easy condition to diagnose. What is major depression? Find out more about this common mental health problem.

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    Most people feel down once in a while, usually in response to a specific circumstance, but for people with major depression this feeling is constant and greatly interferes with their life. Not surprisingly, some depression sufferers contemplate suicide, so bleak is their outlook. What is major depression and who’s at risk for this condition?

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    What is Major Depression?

    Major depression isn’t a disorder where the diagnosis is made by drawing blood or doing an x-ray. It’s based on recognizing the symptoms along with the exclusion of other mental and physical conditions that can cause depressive symptoms. Understanding and recognizing these symptoms is important to allow a depressed person to get the help they need.

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    Common Signs and Symptoms of Depression

    A person suffering from depression may be withdrawn and be reluctant to participate in activities he or she or previously enjoyed. They usually have a marked loss of self-esteem and a generalized gloomy outlook regarding the future.

    Other signs of depression include changes in eating habits (usually eating less), difficulty sleeping (although some sleep more as a form of escape), reluctance to interact with people or take part in social activities, difficulty concentrating, and references to suicide. They may also suffer from a variety of physical symptoms including poor appetite, lack of energy and frequent headaches.

    A depressed person may seem preoccupied and withdrawn with a general sense of hopelessness. Inside, a depressed person usually has doubts about their abilities and their future - and has a pervasive sense of worthlessness.

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    Men and women who come from families with a parent or other family members who have had major depression are at higher risk. People who have experienced traumatic events in their life, especially during childhood, are also at greater risk for major depression later on in life.

    Women are more commonly diagnosed with major depression than men by a ratio of two to one. Marital status plays a role too. Depression is more common in people who are divorced and separated than those who are married or never married. People who have certain medical problems, particularly cardiovascular disease, are also more prone to depression.

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    What Causes Major Depression?

    The best theory is that an interplay of genetic susceptibility and environmental influences bring on the symptoms of major depression. Traumatic events that might have little long-term impact on a normal person may trigger major depression in a person with a genetic tendency towards the disorder.

    Certain personality types may also be predisposed to major depression. Hormones, particularly estrogen may play a role since women are more likely to experience major depression than men and are more susceptible at certain times in their life when hormones are fluctuating such as after giving birth.

    There’s also little doubt that neurotransmitters, especially serotonin, play a critical role. Major depression often responds to antidepressants that increase levels of serotonin in the brain, giving more credence to the role serotonin plays in this disorder.

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    New Section TitleWhat is Major Depression: The Bottom Line?

    Major depression is a disorder that’s not completely understood and may not be properly diagnosed since there are no standard tests to detect it. Hopefully, more awareness of this disorder will make it easier for a person with major depression to get the help they need.

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    References

    Acnp.org. “Risk Factors for Major Depression"

    National Institute of Health. “Depression”

    Mayo Clinic website. “Depression”

    Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.