Identifying a Depressive Disorder

Mood disorders have affected an estimated 9.7 percent of US adults in the past year, with most individuals receiving a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. However, while MDD is the most common diagnosis, mood disorders (or depressive disorders) come in a variety of shapes and sizes. While they often entail depressive symptoms, mood disorders are caused and shaped by several different factors, and thus require very different treatments.

To understand how depressive disorders are distinctly characterized and separated from one another, it’s important to circle back and understand what depression itself is, and how mood disorders differ from anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and a number of other mental health issues.


What is Depression?

Depression usually refers to major depressive disorder but may refer to the depressive symptoms exhibited in different mood disorders. Depression is characterized by a low or sad mood, but often also describes individuals who have become apathetic and struggle with oversleeping, as well as individuals who are irritable, suffer from insomnia, and are exceptionally hard on themselves, and so on. Sometimes, depression is exhibited without explicit symptoms of sadness, but rather a lack of joy and a loss of interest, as well as an overwhelming sense of loneliness.

While all these emotions and feelings are natural within the right context, a depression entails a lasting significant shift in an individual’s mood for at least two weeks. While depression can be triggered and grief-related, many forms of depression seemingly come out of “nowhere”.

The signs and symptoms of a depression are quite noticeable and may be picked up quickly by friends and family. Common signs to watch out for include:

  • Fatigue
  • Problems with thinking and memory
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Low sex drive
  • Low appetite or stress eating
  • Feelings of guilt or hopelessness
  • Insomnia
  • Mild and/or chronic aches
  • Sudden negative shift in mood
  • Common and unexplained stomach pain
  • Feelings of “emptiness”
  • Loneliness
  • Suicidal ideation


How A Depression is Diagnosed

While the signs above are associated with depressive disorders, it’s reckless to make a diagnosis without a professional. In fact, only a psychiatrist – a medical doctor who has spent several years specializing in the treatment and study of mental health problems – can make a diagnosis of a mental illness.

When faced with a patient exhibiting symptoms such as those above, psychiatrists usually go over a series of questions and tests to determine whether it’s likely that a patient’s symptoms coincide with depression, or something else entirely. While depression is a mental illness, its symptoms are physical as well. A thorough physical evaluation is made to check for certain issues, from swollen lymph nodes, knots, growths, and any other unusual warning signs, to a detailed history of the patient’s recent pains and aches, their locations, and frequencies.

A family history can help as well. Individuals with a genetic history of mood disorders are statistically more likely to develop a mood disorder, weighing towards the possibility of a mood disorder. Once a patient explains how they’ve been feeling and what they’ve gone through, a psychiatrist will evaluate the existing evidence and come to a conclusion. From there, it’s time to consider potential treatment plans.


Identifying Different Depressive Disorders

Major depressive disorder is characterized by severe depressive symptoms lasting at least two weeks, but there are other disorders with similar characteristics but very unique symptoms. While there are no official diagnostic tests for each and every single depressive disorder, there are certain signs that psychiatrists look for when examining a patient and making a diagnosis. These include:


  • Are a patient’s symptoms seasonal? Seasonal affective disorder most commonly occurs around winter-time, for a variety of reasons, and describes depressive symptoms that grow in strength as the day shortens and the night lengthens.


  • Are a patient’s symptoms related to their cycle? Premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a form of PMS that is considerably more disruptive, with depressive and/or anxious symptoms, as well as more severe physical symptoms and mood shifts.


  • Does a patient experience depressive symptoms as well as periods of mania? Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depressive disorder, is a form of mood disorder characterized by several week-long episodes of depression, hypomania, and/or mania, depending on the type of bipolar disorder.


  • Are the symptoms milder, yet present for years rather than weeks? Persistent depressive disorder, previously known as dysthymia, is a milder form of depression with long-lasting symptoms. However, a significant portion of people with PDD present with severe symptoms as well.


  • Did the symptoms begin during/after drug use? Substance abuse-related depression may be a result of the drug use and changes the way an addiction is treated with respect to the complications potentially present when dealing with a dual diagnosis.


  • Are the symptoms depressive, or a form of grief/demoralization? Not all forms of severe and lasting sadness are depressive, and a key characteristic is that severe demoralization or grief still allows for occasional feelings of levity or peace, whereas depression is usually characterized by a long-lasting sadness.


  • Other considerations to make include various different forms of etiology, as well as other unique depressive disorders such as peripartum depression (before or after giving birth), catatonic depression (experiencing depression alongside severe loss of movement and expression), psychotic depression (a form of depression accompanied by severe delusions and/or hallucinations), and dual diagnoses of depressive symptoms with an anxiety disorder, and more


How Depressive Disorders Are Treated

Treatment options differ from person to person, from case to case. There is no straightforward way to treat a depression, and even when it comes to medication, there are numerous options. SSRIs, a type of low-risk antidepressant, are more commonly used to treat various cases of depression, but they do not always work and are not effective for every single type of depression. TMS is also used, often as an alternative to medication or alongside it as a non-invasive way to deal with depression. Some therapies only work for specific disorders, such as phototherapy for seasonal affective disorder.

The key to every case of depression treatment is to embrace the love and support of your friends and family members. Regardless of what your support system looks like, it’s important to have one to begin with. This is not something you need to go through alone, and it’s much easier with others.

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