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Diagnosing Depression

The biggest hurdle to diagnosing and treating depression is recognizing that someone is suffering from it. Unfortunately, approximately half of the people who experience depression never get diagnosed or treated for their illness. And not getting treatment can be life threatening: More than 10% of people battling depression commit suicide.

How Is Depression Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of depression often begins with a physical exam by a doctor. There are certain viruses, medicines, hormonal or vitamin deficiencies, and illnesses that can cause depression-like symptoms. The doctor will want to know when your symptoms began, how long they have lasted, and how severe they are. He or she will ask whether you have had similar symptoms before, and about past treatments you may have received. Your family history is important, as is any history of drug or alcohol use. Although there is no specific test that a mental health expert can use to diagnose depression, there are certain features that he or she will look for during a clinical interview to make the proper diagnosis.

If a physical cause for the depression is not identified, your doctor may refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist for a more detailed psychological evaluation. The psychologist or psychiatrist will determine the best course of treatment that may include antidepressants, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a treatment option performed as a series of treatments under general anesthesia for people with extremely severe depression or who do not respond to multiple trials of antidepressant medication.  An outpatient procedure called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is another form of brain stimulation that uses a magnetic field to stimulate brain areas involved in mood. It was approved by the FDA in 2008 to treat depression when an antidepressant isn't effective, but isn't currently thought to be as effective as ECT.

How Do I Know When to Seek Help?

  • When depression is negatively affecting your life such as causing difficulties with relationships, work issues, or family disputes and there isn't a clear solution to these problems, you should seek help to prevent things from getting worse, especially if these feelings persist for any length of time.
  • If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or feelings, seek help immediately.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on May 11, 2014

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