About Depression

Depression is a serious illness that affects millions of Americans. Much more than "just a case of the blues," depression can interfere with relationships, daily activities, work and other aspects of your life.

  • Depression causes persistent sadness, loss of activity, and withdrawal from others
  • Depression can cause feelings of hopelessness and suicide
  • If left untreated, depression can last for months or years

Many health professionals consider depression a chronic illness that requires long-term treatment, much like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Causes and Risk Factors

While the precise causes of depression are not known, researchers believe that depression is caused by an imbalance of the brain’s neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit signals between brain cells. Research suggests that abnormalities in the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine can affect behavior and mood.

Depression affects men and women of all ages – including children – and has often been shown to run in families. A person can have one or many episodes of depression in a lifetime. Each episode of depression makes a person more likely to have another episode of depression.

Research has shown that a combination of genetics and stressful life events may cause depression. These events can include:

  • Childbirth, a death in the family, work, or relationships
  • Finding out you have a long-term health problem, such as arthritis, heart disease, or cancer

Health problems, such as anemia or an underactive thyroid gland (known as hypothyroidism)

Women & Depression

Women have a greater lifetime risk of depression than men. Some of the uniquely female forms of depression include:

  • Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), and clearly defined Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) - marked by symptoms of feeling sad, hopeless or self-deprecating, feeling tense, anxious or “on edge”, feeling irritable or angry, with increased interpersonal conflicts, and/or decreased interest in activities
  • Pregnancy and Postpartum Depression - Fifty to eighty percent of women experience mild postpartum dysphoria, characterized by mood swings, crying and irritability for three to ten days postpartum. Ten percent of women develop a much more severe depression three to four months postpartum, and one in 500 to one in 1,000 women develop psychosis characterized by hallucinations and delusions within two weeks postpartum. Women with a previous history of depression or a previous history of psychiatric complications after delivery are particularly at risk. Women also may develop these symptoms during pregnancy.
  • Menopausal Depression - Healthy menopausal women often experience mood, cognitive and behavioral changes. Women with a history of premenstrual, postpartum or other depressions are at risk of developing more severe psychiatric illness after menopause. It is thought that, as a woman’s reproductive hormones and melatonin change with age, she may experience sleep, mood and behavioral disturbances brought about by disturbances in her biological rhythms.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The most common symptoms of depression are:

  • Feeling hopeless, sad or “blue” nearly every day for at least two weeks
  • Losing interest in activities you formerly enjoyed nearly every day for at least two weeks
  • Feeling tired or lacking in energy almost every day
  • Feeling unworthy or guilty nearly every day
  • Finding it hard to think clearly, make decisions or concentrate
  • Irritability or anxiety

If your symptoms last two weeks or more, discuss your feelings with your doctor. Treatment may be necessary.

To diagnose depression, your physician will ask question about your health and feelings, and may use a questionnaire designed to help diagnose depression. Your physician may also do a physical exam, perform blood tests to rule out underlying conditions such as an underactive thyroid, and may ask you about thoughts of suicide.

Always tell your doctor if you feel sad or have other symptoms of depression. Depression can be treated, and the sooner you get treatment, the more likely you are to experience a fast and full recovery.

For more information on obtaining services with the UC San Diego Department of Psychiatry, please call:

  • Adult Outpatient Services: 619-543-6250