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Understanding Clinical Depression

A woman sits on the beach in a white dress looking thoughtful and sad.

by Charles Moreau, MD

Many people may experience periods of sadness during their lifetime. This feeling may last for as little as a couple of hours or for as long as two weeks or more.

Although many people equate depression with an extended period of sadness, people who experience this feeling are not necessarily suffering from clinical depression.

Significant differences exist between clinical depression and sadness, with the latter being a natural reaction to a painful circumstance, such as the death of a relative, or a divorce. Depression, however, is a medical condition with several more symptoms than an unhappy mood.

Depression normally lasts for more than two weeks. People who suffer from the condition typically complain of low energy, sadness or irritability, and an inability to enjoy activities. Other symptoms include concentration problems, memory lapses, difficulty making decisions, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and a preoccupation with thoughts of death or suicide.

Depression's impact on the population

The exact cause of the condition is not entirely known. It may be triggered by an imbalance of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Studies have shown that it runs in families and is often triggered by a stressful event and lack of social support.

Anyone can develop depression regardless of race, sex or social status. It affects more than 19 million people, although women experience it twice as often as men do. One out of every 10 adults who visit a primary care physician has depression.

Unfortunately, it goes undetected in about half of those cases. Psychiatric physicians are specially trained to recognize clinical depression and can offer effective treatments.

Children, teens and clinical depression

Complicating the ability of physicians to detect depression in children and adolescents are “mood swings” and other emotional changes that are often a normal part of development. Approximately one in every 33 children and one in eight adolescents may have depression. Countless cases go undiagnosed.

Once a child experiences an episode of depression, he or she is at risk of having a subsequent episode within the next five years. Before puberty, the rate of the condition occurs equally in boys and girls. However, teenage girls are more likely to develop it than teenage boys are.

Furthermore, children and teenagers who have a chronic illness, endure abuse or neglect, or experience other trauma have an increased risk of developing depression.

The most disturbing statistic regarding depression in children and adolescents is the suicidal death rate. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24, and the sixth leading cause of death for among children ages 5 to 14 years old. Moreover, the rate of attempted suicide and self-harm is higher.

Determining when depression might be present

Determining if your loved ones are showing signs of depression can be very challenging. Normal moodiness and clinical depression may often appear similar. Effective treatment is available for children, adolescents and adults who suffer from the condition. Professional counseling, medications — such as antidepressants — and family education have shown great promise in helping people successfully recover.

Unfortunately, many people report embarrassment or shame as a barrier in seeking treatment. Many people often incorrectly identify depression as a weakness or flaw. However, depression is a medical illness with effective treatment. If you think you or a loved one is suffering from depression, consult a physician today for a proper evaluation.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Charles Moreau, MD, Scripps Mercy Hospital.