A new series begins today on the subject of Depression. Find out all you need to know by following our exclusive articles, each tackling one aspect.
Much has been written in the media lately about the increasing incidence of depression – surely a sign of the stresses and strains of modern life. But, how do we know if we actually have it?
One of the biggest challenges facing mental health specialists in addressing depression is accurately diagnosing it in the first place. This is because depression can present vague and confusing symptoms so it is easy to see why a diagnosis can be missed. A depressed person might present a variety of non-specific physical and emotional symptoms and a doctor must be very thorough to determine a correct diagnosis of depression. In addition, the difficulty in accurate diagnosis is further compounded by the fact that many medical problems share the same symptoms of depression and in fact, some of these may directly be causing the depression.
One of the first things your doctor is likely to do is conduct a physical exam. There is a range of illnesses and medicines that can cause symptoms very similar to those experienced with depression, so your doctor will need to ensure that a physical cause is not responsible. You will need to tell your doctor when your symptoms began to occur as well as how long they have been present. In addition, your doctor might well ask about your family history to check for any substance abuse or symptoms of depression alongside other illnesses. Although there is no definitive 'test' to confirm depression, all the information you give will help determine if you actually have clinical depression.
Concentrating on the physical symptoms first, the following may be present:
• Increased or decreased appetite leading to weight gain or weight loss
• Chronic pain and exhaustion
• Gastrointestinal complaints such as nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, indigestion
• Non-specific aches and pains throughout your body
Your doctor may discuss the severity and quality of your symptoms in depth and this can be difficult, but try your best to be as open and honest as possible. He/she might feel that a psychologist can better assess your potential depression and can then make a more accurate treatment recommendations.
Your personal medical history
Some of the questions you may be asked are:
• What are your current symptoms and how long have you had them?
• Do you have thoughts of suicide and if so, have you thought about how you would take your life?
• Do you have any other medical conditions, past and present?
• Are there any recent traumatic events that occurred in your life?
• Do you have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and fatigue?
• Have you ever been involved in drug abuse?
Symptoms suggesting a diagnosis of depression
Depression can present an enormous range of symptoms, varying in their intensity and duration, and your doctor will evaluate each of these carefully. Symptoms of depression are those that actually interfere with your ability to function in a normal manner.
You may be feeling:
Activities that were once a source of pleasure but are now something you dread might include:
• Social activities
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above and have been for several weeks, this is often sufficient in itself to prompt a diagnosis of depression.
Medicines, conditions and depression
Have you considered that medicines you are currently taking may have triggered your depression? Examples include:
• Blood pressure medicines such as beta-blockers
Additionally, there are a number of treatable conditions that cause depression and as such, treating these conditions can help improve depression symptoms. Think about whether you have ever suffered, or might be suffering, from the following:
• Parkinson's disease
• Stroke, particularly if recent
• Thyroid disease
• Brain tumours
• B12 deficiency
From the above, it is clear that recognising clinical depression is often difficult. The unfortunate reality is that a great number of people who are depressed never receive a proper diagnosis and their depression is left untreated.
One of the most frightening risks of untreated depression is that suicide may occur. The important thing is to take the first step in getting that vital, accurate diagnosis. From then on, you can begin treatment and hopefully alleviate your symptoms.
Coming next: Depression: a DIY self-help questionnaire