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Overview of depression
Depression is a common medical condition that is associated with a wide range of emotional and physical symptoms. These symptoms can have a great impact on daily life. People suffering from depression may no longer have control over their moods or feelings, and they tend to feel low almost all the time. Consequently, they may have trouble holding on to their job, keeping up with their studies, and/or maintaining their family life and social contacts.
Depression can strike anyone, but various social and biological factors can increase a person’s risk of developing the disorder. In addition, stressful experiences such as illness, unemployment or bereavement may trigger the condition in some people.
Depression affects people in different ways, but is more than just ‘feeling down’ for a short while. Due to chemical changes in the brain, people with depression may experience long-lasting feelings of sadness and anxiety, have unexplained aches and pains, and suffer from poor quality of sleep and/or lack of interest and energy. These symptoms may persist for weeks, months or years.
At its most serious, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Depression is found worldwide in people of all age groups and from all social backgrounds, and in both men and women. Depression typically first appears in people aged 20–25 years.2
Estimates of prevalence vary widely, but in most countries 8–12% of people will experience depression during their lifetime.2
The World Health Organization now lists depression as one of the most debilitating conditions in the world, with severe depression rated in the same disability category as terminal stage cancer.3 Depression is the leading disease-burden in middle- and high-income countries.3 One study found that up to 65% of individuals suffering from depression rated their condition as being severely disabling.4 Despite this, many people with depression remain untreated.4
Seeking diagnosis and care
It is very important for people who have the symptoms of depression to ask for professional help.
Depression can be diagnosed by a doctor, who will ask about symptoms, daily life and family background. There may also be a physical examination to exclude other conditions. Once a diagnosis is made, a combination of different therapies, including medication, counselling, social support, exercise and self-help techniques, is usually recommended.
Support from friends or a family member is also a very important part of the overall therapy. Those close to the depressed person are well placed to encourage them to seek help and to offer positive reinforcement once this is in place.
1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition, text revision, DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: 2000.
2. Andrade L, Caraveo-Anduaga JJ, Berglund P, et al. The epidemiology of major depressive episodes: Results from the International Consortium of Psychiatric Epidemiology (ICPE) Surveys. Int J Methods Psychiatr Res 2003; 12(1): 3–21. Erratum in: Int J Methods Psychiatr Res 2003; 12(3): 165.
3. World Health Organization. The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update. Available at www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/2004_report_update/en/index.html (accessed 6 September 2011).
4. Kessler R, Aguilar-Gaxiola S, Alonso J, et al. The global burden of mental disorders: An update from the WHO World Mental Health (WMH) Surveys. Epidemiol Psychiatr Soc 2009; 18(1): 23–33.