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Depression – causes, signs and treatment options

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Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In Australia, it is estimated that 45 per cent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.

This article, which shares information courtesy of beyondblue, highlights what may cause depression, signs and symptoms and treatment options. This is the second in a series of articles which also shares information on anxiety and suicide, with the aim of improving awareness of mental health. Read the anxiety article here.

Depression and anxiety are common conditions.

Three million Australians are living with depression or anxiety – in any one year, around one million Australian adults have depression, and over two million have anxiety. 

While depression and anxiety are different conditions, it is not uncommon for them to occur at the same time. Over half of those who experience depression also experience symptoms of anxiety. In some cases, one can lead to the onset of the other.

What is depression?

While we all feel sad, moody or low from time to time, some people experience these feelings intensely, for long periods of time (weeks, months or even years) and sometimes without any apparent reason. Depression is more than just a low mood – it's a serious illness that has an impact on both physical and mental health.

What causes depression?

While the exact cause of depression isn't known, a number of things can be associated with its development. Generally, depression does not result from a single event, but from a combination of recent events and other longer-term or personal factors.

Life events

Research suggests that continuing difficulties – long-term unemployment, living in an abusive or uncaring relationship, long-term isolation or loneliness, prolonged exposure to stress at work – are more likely to cause depression than recent life stresses. However, recent events (such as losing a job) or a combination of events can ‘trigger' depression in people who are already at risk because of past bad experiences or personal factors.

Personal factors

  • Family history – Depression can run in families and some people will be at an increased genetic risk. However, this doesn't mean that a person will automatically experience depression if a parent or close relative has had the illness. Life circumstances and other personal factors are still likely to have an important influence.
  • Personality – Some people may be more at risk of depression because of their personality, particularly if they have a tendency to worry a lot, have low self-esteem, are perfectionists, are sensitive to personal criticism, or are self-critical and negative.
  • Serious medical illness – Having a medical illness can trigger depression in two ways. Serious illnesses can bring about depression directly, or can contribute to depression through associated stress and worry, especially if it involves long-term management of the illness and/or chronic pain.
  • Drug and alcohol use – Drug and alcohol use can both lead to and result from depression. Many people with depression also have drug and alcohol problems. Over 500,000 Australians will experience depression and a substance use disorder at the same time, at some point in their lives.

Changes in the brain

Although there has been a lot of research in this complex area, there is still much that we do not know. Depression is not simply the result of a ‘chemical imbalance’, for example because you have too much or not enough of a particular brain chemical. There are in fact many and multiple causes of major depression. Factors such as genetic vulnerability, severe life stressors, substances you may take (some medications, drugs and alcohol) and medical conditions can lead to faulty mood regulation in the brain.

Most modern antidepressants have an effect on your brain’s chemical transmitters (serotonin and noradrenaline), which relay messages between brain cells – this is thought to be how medications work for more severe depression. Psychological treatments can also help you to regulate your moods.

Effective treatments can stimulate new growth of nerve cells in circuits that regulate mood, which is thought to play a critical part in recovery from the most severe episodes of depression.

Everyone is different and it's often a combination of factors that can contribute to a person developing depression. It's important to note that you can't always identify the cause of depression or change difficult circumstances. The most important thing is to recognise the signs and symptoms and seek help.

Signs and symptoms

A person may be depressed if, for more than two weeks, he or she has felt sad, down or miserable most of the time or has lost interest or pleasure in usual activities, and has also experienced several of the signs and symptoms across at least three of the categories below.

It’s important to note that everyone experiences some of these symptoms from time to time and it may not necessarily mean a person is depressed. Equally, not every person who is experiencing depression will have all of these symptoms.

Behaviour

  • not going out anymore
  • not getting things done at work/school
  • withdrawing from close family and friends
  • relying on alcohol and sedatives
  • not doing usual enjoyable activities
  • unable to concentrate

Feelings

  • overwhelmed
  • guilty
  • irritable
  • frustrated
  • lacking in confidence
  • unhappy
  • indecisive
  • disappointed
  • miserable
  • sad

Thoughts

  • 'I’m a failure.'
  • 'It’s my fault.'
  • 'Nothing good ever happens to me.'
  • 'I’m worthless.'
  • 'Life’s not worth living.'
  • 'People would be better off without me.'

Physical

  • tired all the time
  • sick and run down
  • headaches and muscle pains
  • churning gut
  • sleep problems
  • loss or change of appetite
  • significant weight loss or gain

If you think that you, or someone you know, may have depression, there is a quick, easy and confidential checklist you can complete to give you more insight. The checklist will not provide a diagnosis – for that you need to see a health professional. 

Treatments for depression

There is no one proven way that people recover from depression. However, there is a range of effective treatments and health professionals who can help people on the road to recovery. 

There are also many things that people with depression can do for themselves to help them recover and stay well. The important thing is finding the right treatment and the right health professional for the individual's needs.

Visit beyondblue’s website for advice on treatment and next steps.

Psychological treatments for depression

Medical treatments for depression

Other sources of support

This information is courtesy of beyondblue, and more comprehensive information on depression and treatment is available on the beyondblue website.

Find out more

beyondblue support service - 1300 22 4636

beyondblue website

The facts – anxiety

The facts – depression

If you or someone you know needs help, contact:

beyondblue: 1300 22 4636
www.beyondblue.org.au  

Lifeline: 13 11 14
www.lifeline.org.au

Last updated
29 May 2017