Depression, also called clinical depression or major depressive disorder, affects everyone differently. That’s why a treatment plan made just for you is important. Its many moving parts work together to help you feel better. But some may take longer than others. Understanding the value of each one will help you stay on track -- that's the key to getting better.

What Is a Treatment Plan?

Think of it as your roadmap to better mental health. It spells out the nuts and bolts of your care, like medication and therapy, as well as the goals that matter to you. These are what you hope to gain from treatment.

Your goals might be practical, like being able to go to work again, or more emotional, like enjoying activities you used to care about. Either way, they help motivate you to stick with your treatment plan. As you reach these milestones, you’ll know your treatment is working.

Treatment is more successful when you work with your doctor to put your plan together. It can change as your condition changes, but it’s often broken down into three parts:

The acute or first phase. This often lasts between 6 and 12 weeks and aims to ease symptoms.

The continuation phase. This lasts for several more months and aims to get the most improvement.

The maintenance phase. This is ongoing. The goal is to keep your symptoms from coming back.

The Role of Medication

Antidepressants target problems with chemicals in the brain that could be behind your depression. Several things help your doctor decide which drug may work best. These include:

  • Your specific symptoms 
  • Medications you take for other conditions
  • What’s likely to cause the fewest side effects

Antidepressants can help, but not always as fast as you might hope. Lots of things determine how well a drug works, including your genes. Your symptoms may start to ease in a week or two, but you may not feel the full effects for 2 or 3 months.  

How to Manage Side Effects

Some people stop taking their medication because of side effects. These vary from one drug to another. But you should talk to your doctor. That’s because there are usually ways to manage side effects. They include:

  • A lower dose
  • A different antidepressant
  • Another drug to manage the side effect

Don’t just try to ignore them. The stronger the side effects are, the more tempted you might be to give up on treatment. That can set back your recovery.

What to Do If Your Medication Isn’t Working

Some people quit taking an antidepressant when it doesn’t work fast enough or at all. But these are signs to talk to your doctor. Don’t just stop taking your medication. That could lead to a relapse or a new set of symptoms from withdrawal. Tell your doctor if you don’t feel better after 3 or 4 months. A higher dose might help. If you still don’t feel better, you may need a different drug. You might have to try a few antidepressants to find what works best for you. 

The Role of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is when you talk with a mental health professional about whatever is happening in your life. It can help you:

  • Better manage problems at home or work
  • Improve relationships
  • Uncover underlying reasons for your depression and how to deal with them

Talk therapy plus medication tends to work better than doing one or the other. There are different types, but you and your therapist can figure out which might work best for you. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a common one. It focuses on problem solving and how to flip negative thinking and behaviors. Just like with medication, you might not see results right away. Experts say to give it at least 10 to 15 sessions.

Your plan might also include support from a peer group. At first, it may feel weird to share your life with people you don’t know. But talking with people who are dealing with the same thing or successfully managing depression can give you hope. You’ll also learn what worked for them.

The Importance of Lifestyle Changes

Exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep can make a big difference in how you feel. If you’re not up for a full workout, try going for a walk in fresh air.

Avoid tobacco and alcohol. If you’ve been relying on alcohol or illegal substances to self-medicate, follow steps in your plan to stop. These can make depression episodes worse and more common.

Why You Should Stick With Your Plan

You may have days when you think about stopping. But don’t give up. With time, you and your doctor will figure out what works for you. Once you feel better, you may think you no longer need treatment. But any time you stop, you run the risk of worsening symptoms or a relapse. Think of your treatment plan as a pact made with your doctor. It can change over time as you change, but always with shared decision-making.

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