Skip main navigation

What are the signs of depression?

The subject of mental health is an important one. Whether you’re struggling yourself or know someone who is, understanding the signs of depression and what to do about them can be helpful.

Fl406 Depression Blog Header

Taking care of your mental health is an essential part of life. Over the last few decades, we’ve come to appreciate just how important our mental wellbeing is, and we are better at assessing and protecting it. But it’s not always easy to do so. To help give you a deeper understanding, we take a look at what the signs of depression are.

As well as looking at these signs, we’ll also explore what depression actually is, what causes it, how it affects people, and how we can treat it. It’s a topic that deserves understanding, whether it affects you or someone you know.


What is depression?

Depression is a condition that’s often misunderstood. People sometimes use phrases similar to ‘I’m so depressed right now’ when they’re feeling sad about something. And, of course, we all have days where we’re feeling a little down, unhappy or fed up. However, neither of these situations accurately describes depression. It’s a medical condition with a range of different symptoms. 

Depression is a mood disorder that affects the way you feel, think, and act for prolonged periods. It can make a person feel disconnected, lose their interest in the things they love, and impact the way they function at work or home.

A brief history

Despite what some people may claim, depression has been around for many years. Although it’s only relatively recently that we’ve understood it, the condition has appeared throughout human history. 

The history of depression has its roots as far back as the second millennium BCE. The ancient Mesopotamians believed it was a spiritual condition caused by demons. The ancient Romans and Greeks called the illness ‘melancholia’, a name that would stick around for many generations. They blamed it on an imbalance within the bodily fluids (known at the time as humours). 

Treatments in ancient times varied from the barbaric to the more practical, such as diet, exercise, and therapeutic methods. Sadly, by the Middle Ages, the condition was once again placed in the realm of the spiritual. As with many mental illnesses, demons, witches, and devils were blamed, and exorcisms, burnings, and drownings were administered. 

The 18th and 19th centuries often weren’t much better. Depression and those who suffered from it were treated as something that should be shunned and isolated from society. It was only towards the latter part of the 1800s that attitude softened, and science started to find answers. 

Through the 1900s, psychology and medicine rapidly changed our understanding of depression. Thoughts, behaviours, and biological factors were all attributed to the illness. Our definitions and treatments changed too, and we now have a better understanding of and approach to depression than ever before.

Types of depression

There are several different types of depression. Understanding the differences can make it easier to identify and treat the illness in the most effective way. Usually, the various types are understood based on the symptoms and the severity:

  • Clinical depression. This is the term used when a doctor gives a diagnosis of depression. It can include depressive episodes that are labelled as mild, moderate, or severe. 
  • Recurrent depressive disorder. Those that have at least two episodes of depression are said to have this condition. 
  • Reactive depression. This term is used when difficult events in a person’s life, such as a bereavement, trigger a depressive episode. 
  • Dysthymia. Those who experience continuous, mild depression lasting over two years are said to have this disorder, which is sometimes known as chronic depression. 
  • Bipolar disorder. This is a different disorder to depression and was previously known as manic depression. Those who are suffering from bipolar disorder experience extreme elation as well as periods of depression.
  • Prenatal or postnatal depression. New parents (both men and women) can experience postnatal depression after the birth of a child. When it occurs during pregnancy, it’s known as antenatal or prenatal depression. 
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Some people experience depression during particular seasons, often in winter.
  • Psychotic depression. In some cases, episodes of depression are so severe that the sufferer experiences hallucinations or delusions known as psychosis.

Depression vs anxiety

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health conditions in the UK. Although there are similarities between the two, they are separate illnesses. Many of the symptoms overlap, particularly when it comes to things like sleep problems, concentration, and fatigue. If you think you are suffering from either disorder, you should contact your GP for a proper diagnosis.

How many people have it?

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the world. The World Health Organisation estimates that over 264 million people across the globe suffer from some form, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide. 

In the UK, a 2014 study showed that 19.7% of the population showed symptoms of depression or anxiety. Numbers were higher among women and girls than men and boys, which is a trend often seen with the illness. 

UK figures also show that those facing social inequality, discrimination, social exclusion, as well as those going through trauma or with differences in physical health, are often at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems.

What causes depression?

Depression is a complicated condition and one that’s often misunderstood. Popular belief often suggests a number of unhelpful causes for depression. The idea that it’s ‘all in the mind’ or something you can ‘just get over’ are particularly damaging. 

In reality, there are several factors that could cause depression. What’s more, although two people may be displaying similar symptoms, the causes (and treatments) could be entirely different. We’re not going to dive into the detailed science of what causes depression. Instead, here are the basics of some of the contributing factors: 

  • The brain: The brain regulates our mood and emotions through a range of different chemicals, nerve connections, and other circuitry. Certain regions are responsible for different moods and functions. Although our understanding is limited, it’s believed that various areas of the brain could be responsible for certain symptoms of depression. 
  • Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that help nerve cells to communicate. Brain cells produce these chemicals to keep various functions, such as memory and emotion, balanced and working. An imbalance of chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and others, could be responsible for some forms of depression. 
  • Genes: Our genes control every part of our body, including our brains and our mood. Those who are genetically vulnerable to depression may mean that they’re more likely to experience stress and low mood. We know that depression and bipolar often run in families. 
  • Life events: Your genes influence how sensitive you are to stress, and the chemical reactions triggered by stressful events can mean that depression and anxiety develop as a result. 
  • Medical problems: A range of medical problems, from vitamin B12 deficiency to cancer, are associated with depression.
  • Medications: Similarly, certain drugs, such as steroids and blood pressure medication, can have depression as a side effect.

What are the signs of depression?

The signs of depression come in many forms, which can sometimes make it difficult to spot. What’s more, some of the symptoms could be linked to other medical ailments, which means it can take time to narrow it down. There are often both physical and mental signs of depression, as we’ve covered in more detail below:

Physical signs

There are several common physical signs of depression that can often leave a person feeling drained and out of sorts. These include things like:  

  • Fatigue and sleep problems. Some people find it harder to fall asleep when they’re depressed, while others sleep too much. Feelings of low energy and fatigue are also common, even if you rest a lot. 
  • Changes in weight and appetite. For some people, this symptom can mean they feel less hungry and lose weight. For others, they can’t stop eating and gain weight. Again, this is often linked with a lack of energy. 
  • Moving or speaking more slowly than usual. Another common sign of depression is that people feel like they’ve ‘slowed down’ in their minds and bodies.
  • Aches and pains. People who are depressed often feel pain to a greater degree and have a lower tolerance for it. Some people also suffer from an aching back or muscles. 
  • Loss of libido (sex drive). Some people with depression lose interest in sex. What’s more, some medication for depression can reduce sex drive.
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle. Depression can change the levels of certain hormones linked to the reproductive system. This can delay or stop ovulation, meaning a late period or no period at all.

Psychological signs

When it comes to the mental signs of depression, these feelings are usually prolonged, lasting more than two weeks. Symptoms include: 

  • Low mood and sadness. Often, people feel sad, low, and generally down and out, often without apparent reason. 
  • Feelings of hopelessness. People often feel as if these feelings and the situation won’t ever get better. 
  • Low self-esteem. Feelings of worthlessness and self-criticism are common. 
  • Feeling tearful, guilty, or irritable. These symptoms often vary across individuals but can be frustrating and upsetting. 
  • Losing motivation or interest. It’s common for people to stop caring about the things they usually enjoy, such as hobbies and pastimes. 
  • Difficulty making decisions. This symptom can sometimes accompany trouble focusing, concentrating, and remembering things. 
  • Anxiety. Feelings of dread and panic, as well as racing thoughts and rumination.
  • Thoughts of self-harm. Those experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm should seek help and talk with someone they trust.

 

What are the effects of depression?

When left untreated, depression can impact many areas of a person’s life. As we saw with the signs of depression, there are both physical and psychological symptoms an individual may experience. Yet there are also other ways in which this illness can affect people:

Physical effects

People suffering from prolonged and untreated depression may be at risk of several adverse effects on their health. These often depend on the severity and length of the illness, but can include: 

  • Increased risk of heart disease. It’s often harder for a depressed person to make healthy lifestyle choices. Poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle are risk factors associated with heart disease. What’s more, some research suggests that those with depression have an increased risk of developing heart disease. 
  • Worsening health conditions. Those who already have chronic (ongoing) illnesses may find that symptoms worsen when they have depression. 
  • Inflammation. Research shows a link between depression, inflammation, and changes in the immune system. Those with depression are more likely to suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), type 2 diabetes, and arthritis. However, it’s unclear where the cause and effect is. 

Social effects

It’s not just the physical, emotional, and psychological areas where people suffer from depression. Many of the symptoms can have broader consequences on a person’s life: 

  • Difficulties at home and work. Depression can cause a person to be distracted, disengaged, and struggle with some of the basic tasks at home and work. This can make personal and professional relationships difficult. 
  • Avoiding social situations and contact with friends. With a loss of motivation, as well as feelings of sadness, people with depression may avoid spending time with their friends in social situations. 
  • Neglecting interests and hobbies. Previously enjoyable activities feel unrewarding and unenjoyable, meaning that they fall by the wayside. 
  • Increased chance of risky behaviour. People struggling with depression may be more likely to engage in risky behaviour in an attempt to lessen the pain. Excessive drinking, drug use, unsafe sex, and self-harm have all been reported. 

Depression during COVID-19

Research has long established a link between chronic stress and depression. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are finding it difficult to cope. According to a survey from the Office for National Statistics, nearly 20% of adults in the UK were experiencing some form of depression during June of the pandemic. This rate is nearly double what it was beforehand. 

Clearly, it’s a difficult time for many people. As such, it’s never been more important to take care of your mental health and wellbeing. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression for more than two weeks, you should seek help from your GP. 

Helping young people manage low mood and depression is particularly important during this time. The upheaval and change to everyday life mean that young people’s mental health may be particularly vulnerable.

How to treat depression

Depression should only be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional. That being said, it’s always useful to know some of the approaches that are common when treating the illness. Usually, the treatment process is a combination of self-help, therapy, and/or medication. 

Often, exact treatments depend on the severity and signs of depression. These can include:

Self-help

For those with mild symptoms, a GP may suggest a period of watchful waiting to see if symptoms improve. Talking through feelings during this time can help, as can things like exercise. The NHS also lists several mental health apps that can help.

Talking therapies

Treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling are often useful for those with mild to moderate depression. These therapies often involve addressing and understanding thought patterns and behaviours. Some methods, such as interpersonal therapy (IP), focus more on relationships and communication.

Medication

Antidepressants are medicines used to treat the symptoms of moderate to severe depression. Doctors prescribe these tablets to help tackle the various symptoms, and they vary in terms of dosage and length. There are many different types available.

Combination therapy

For some individuals, a GP may recommend a combination of all of the treatments listed above. Often, antidepressants and CBT are more effective together than alone.

How to help someone with depression

People often wonder how they can help a friend or loved one with depression. It’s not always easy to know what to do or what’s helpful to those who are suffering. Your instinct might be to offer advice or to try and ‘fix’ them. However, this approach isn’t particularly useful. Remember, depression is a serious illness that often requires medical help. 

Although you can’t directly treat someone suffering from depression, you can support them while they’re vulnerable. There are several things you might want to try:

Be there for them

Your friend or loved one might need you to just listen to them. You can mention that you’re concerned about them, that you’ve noticed the signs of depression, and that they can talk to you if they need to. Don’t be pushy, but encourage them to share their feelings if they want to. Listen in a non-judgemental way and don’t compare their experience to yours. Instead, show empathy and validate their feelings.

Help them to find help

Taking the step to seek help isn’t always easy, particularly if the person is feeling unmotivated and helpless. You might want to support them in making a doctor’s appointment and seeking therapy.  Similarly, they may need your assistance with some everyday tasks that they’re finding particularly hard. Make sure your friend or loved one knows you’re there, but only if you’re certain you can follow through with your offers.

Keep them involved

Make sure to keep inviting your friend to the usual social activities they used to enjoy. Don’t pressure them into coming, but instead let them know that they’re always welcome when they feel like it. Patience is key when helping someone with depression, as the road to recovery can sometimes take a while. Try and not get frustrated with them and keep them in the loop with your social circle.

Learn more 

Understanding this condition can help you spot the signs of depression and be more helpful to the people you care about. Whether it’s by taking one of our anxiety and depression courses or finding organisations that can provide more information, learning more can always help.

Getting help

If you or someone close to you is showing signs of depression, there are plenty of resources and organisations that can help. Remember, it’s important to seek professional medical advice first. You can also check out some of the following places: 

  • For emergency help, those in England can find the NHS urgent mental health helpline.
  • Mind can help provide information and support about mental health.
  • YoungMinds is an organisation offering mental health support for young people.
  • Bipolar UK is a charity that helps people living with bipolar disorder.
  • Mentalhealth.org provides support and information for those suffering with mental health problems.

 

FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education

Related stories on FutureLearn