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What is depression? Low moods are a normal part of life but usually they don't last long and they do not interfere with our full participation in life. Depression, by contrast, is not just a brief blue mood or a feeling of sadness that lifts in a few hours or days. Rather, depression is a mood disturbance marked by enduring feelings of hopelessness, sadness and negative thoughts. Many people with untreated depression find facing life is very difficult. more severe or prolonged than the usual range of sadness which most people experience. People can't "snap out of it" any more than a diabetic can regulate his or her blood sugar using willpower.
How common is depression? Low-grade depression is a quite common emotional experience and most people feel "down in the dumps" from time to time. Moderate to severe depression affects 1 in 5 people some time in their lives. College students are at higher risk of developing depression because the college environment is often quite demanding and stressful. Some studies show that as many as 1 in 3 college students experience depression severe enough to impair their abiity to function at some point during their undergraduate years. In fact, college students have a higher than average rate of suicide.
Causes: Many factors play a role in whether a person gets depressed. some of these include:
Situational influences: Life events such as illness or disability, unemployment or financial stress, loss of relationships, death of loved ones, and failure or disappointment can trigger depression. Difficult family, work or social situations can also cause depression.
Biochemical factors: Chemical imbalances in the brain can cause depression. Depression can also be caused by certain medications, infections and illnesses.
Individual personality: People who are self-critical and demanding, or those who are dependent or pessimistic, may be prone to depression.
Genetic patterns: Research indicates depression tends to run in families.
Substance use: Drug and alcohol use often results in depressed mood either as a side effect or as a withdrawal effect.
Seasonal influences: It is common for people to become depressed during dark winter months (see Seasonal Affective Disorder).
Negative attitudes: Viewing yourself and the world in a negative manner can lead to depression.
Symptoms Depression is not just one disorder. Clinicians classify depressive disorders differently depending on factors such as severity, duration, life stressors, and the presence of other medical problems. However, all depressive disorders are identified by the presence of some combination of the following symptoms that represent a change from a person's usual mood or behavior:
Depressed or irritable mood most days for the majority of each day
Total or very noticeable loss of pleasure or interests most of the time
Significant change in appetite, weight or both
Sleep disorders (insomnia or excessive sleepiness) nearly every night
Feelings of agitation or a sense of intense slowness
Loss of energy and an overwhelming feeling of fatigue
Sense of guilt and worthlessness nearly all the time
Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
Inability to concentrate nearly every day
Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
If you suffer from any of these symptoms—even for a week—please consider getting help. You don't have to "go it alone!" See For More Information.
Treatment: Fortunately, most depressive disorders are treatable using a variety of approaches, including medications, several well-tested forms of psychotherapy and light therapy (for seasonal affective disorder).
The psychotherapeutic and pharmaceutical treatments currently available are up to 80% effective at reducing or eliminating depressive symptoms. Consult with a clinician who can help you to decide on treatment options and screen for other relevant medical conditions. Depending on your preferences and the severity of your disorder, a clinician can prescribe medication and/or refer you to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist for further evaluation and treatment. See For More Information for resources.
Self-care is an important part of managing depression.
Exercise alone has been shown to decrease depression.
Eat well to support body, mind and spirit.
Avoid the use of alcohol and other drugs, which may trigger or complicate depression.
Sleep aids recovery and may help prevent recurrences.
Light therapy has proven effective for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I help a friend who is depressed?
See Helping a Friend for suggestions for talking to a friend about depression or other concerns.
What place does psychotherapy have in the treatment of depression?
Research shows that several forms of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy, are as effective as medication for treatment of mild to moderate depression. People with severe depression tend to respond best to either medication or a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
How long will I need to take medication before I feel better?
Some medications may show effects in as little as two weeks but full effects aren't usually expected for up to eight weeks. Also, be sure to ask your clinician about side effects.
Can I stop taking medication once I feel better?
There isn't a standard and short course of treatment for managing depression. If you have never experienced a depressive episode before, your clinician may find it appropriate for you to stop taking medication after 6-12 months. The more depressive episodes you have experienced, the more likely it is that you will experience another episode. Current guidelines suggest that if you have had three or more episodes, you are better off not stopping your medication regimen.
Will I be on medication for the rest of my life?
While it may be uncomfortable to consider taking medication indefinitely, many people feel it's a better option than repeated bouts of depression. Also, there are psychotherapeutic treatments that are almost as effective as medication. Antidepressants can help depressed people the way that eyeglasses can help nearsighted people. Both are tools to help people function more effectively.
Can alcohol or other drugs take the edge off depression?
Many people experience an initial sense of relief in response to ingestion of alcohol or other drugs, but these feelings are very short-term responses. Actually the use of alcohol and other drugs may make depression more severe. Withdrawal from cocaine and amphetamines, as well as some other drugs, often includes lengthy depressive symptoms.
For more information:
MI Talk is a website for U-M students with mental health resources such as online screenings for depression and anxiety, skill-building tools, and recorded workshops, lectures and relaxation exercises.
U-M Counseling and Psychological Services is students' primary campus resource for mental health services. Use their online screening tool for depression (link to Common Concerns, then Online Screening). 734-764-8312
U-M University Health Service provides medication management of common mental health issues. 734-764-8320
CampusMindWorks supports U-M students who have been diagnosed with an ongoing mental health disorder. This site provides information and resources to help students manage their illness and get the most out of their college experience.
U-M Psychological Clinic provides "affordable, confidential assessment, counseling, and treatment with specialty services for anxiety, couples' therapy, and adult ADHD and Learning Disabilities." Accepts some insurance plans including Premier Care and GradCare, offers sliding-fee scale.
U-M Mental Health Resources links to campus and local resources.
Resources for Stress and Mental Health lists additional campus, local and national resources.
U-M Depression Center
Education, treatment and prevention for clinical depression. Treatment available on a fee-for-services basis (accepts some insurance plans). Produces Beyond Sadness, a brochure on depression in 12 languages. Also offers free workshops and support groups.
National Institute of Mental Health 301-443-4513 or 866-615-6464 (toll-free).
Mental Health America 800-969-6642 offers a Factsheet on Depression in College .