AskDefine | Define depressive

Dictionary Definition

depressive adj : causing or suggestive of sorrow or gloom; "a gloomy outlook"; "gloomy news" [syn: depressing, gloomy, saddening] n : someone suffering psychological depression

User Contributed Dictionary



From French dépressif or medieval Latin depressivus


  1. Tending to produce depression; dispiriting; melancholy.
  2. Being depressed; dispirited; melancholic.


  1. A person suffering from depression.

Extensive Definition

Major depressive disorder, also known as major depression, unipolar depression, clinical depression, or simply depression, is a psychiatric disorder characterized by a pervasive low mood, loss of interest in a person's usual activities and diminished ability to experience pleasure. The diagnosis is made if a person has suffered one or more major depressive episodes. The onset is usually in early- to mid-adulthood. Diagnosis is based on the patient's self-reported experiences and observed behavior; there is no laboratory test for major depression. The course varies widely: it can be a once-in-a-lifetime event or have multiple recurrences; it can appear either gradually or suddenly; and can either last for a few months or be a life-long disorder.
Although the term "depression" is commonly used by laypeople to describe a temporary depressed mood, when a person may feel sad or "down", major depression is a serious and often disabling condition that can significantly affect a person's work, family and school life, sleeping and eating habits, general health and ability to enjoy life. Depression is a major risk factor for suicide; in addition, people with depression suffer from higher mortality from other causes. Clinical depression may be isolated or be a secondary result of a primary condition such as bipolar disorder or chronic pain. When specific treatment is indicated, it usually consists of psychotherapy and antidepressants.

Signs and symptoms

A major depressive episode can manifest with a variety of symptoms, but almost all patients display a marked change in mood, a deep feeling of sadness, and a noticeable loss of interest or pleasure in favorite activities. Other symptoms include:
  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" mood
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight loss or conversely overeating and weight gain
  • Insomnia, early morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Psychomotor agitation or psychomotor retardation
  • Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide or attempts at suicide
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed
  • Withdrawal from social situations, family and friends
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling "slowed down" or sluggish
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive problems, and chronic pain
Not all patients will suffer from every symptom. The severity of symptoms will vary widely among individuals. Symptoms must, however, persist for at least two weeks before being considered a potential sign of depression, with the exception of suicidal thoughts or attempts.
While some children still function reasonably well, most who are suffering depression will suffer from a noticeable change in their social activities and life, a loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, and possibly drastic changes in appearance. They may also begin abusing drugs and/or alcohol, particularly past the age of 12. Although much more rarely than adults, children with major depression may attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts even before the age of 12. These patients also had higher levels of residual impairment. On a similar note, Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University argues that the relationship between stress, anxiety, and depression could be measured and demonstrated biologically.


Before a diagnosis of major depressive disorder is made, a physician should perform a medical examination to rule out a physical cause for the suspected depression. Although there are no biological tests which confirm major depression, tests are carried out to exclude medical illnesses; these include blood tests measuring TSH to exclude hypo- or hyperthyroidism, basic electrolytes and serum calcium to rule out a metabolic disturbance, full blood count including ESR to rule out a systemic infection or chronic disease, and serology to exclude syphilis or HIV infection; two commonly ordered investigations are EEG to exclude epilepsy, and a CT scan of the head to exclude brain lesions. Early dementia may present with depressive symptoms in older patients.
If no such cause is found, a psychological evaluation should be done by the physician or by referral to a psychiatrist, social worker, or psychologist. The Beck Inventory is one of the most widely used diagnostic tools for self-diagnosis of depression, although its main purpose is not the diagnosis of depression, but determining the severity and presence of symptoms.
There are also two Patient Health Questionnaires available that are also self-administered questionnaires. The PHQ-2 has only two questions that asks about the frequency of depressed mood and a loss of interest in doing things, with a positive to either question indicating the need for further testing. The PHQ-9 is a slightly more detailed nine question survey covering some of the major symptoms of depression and the frequency a person has experienced them. It is based directly on the diagnostic criteria listed in the DSM-IV and often used as a follow up to a positive PHQ-2 test.
Other scales commonly used include the Geriatric Depression Scale, in older populations, the widely-used Hamilton Depression Rating Scale designed by psychiatrist Max Hamilton in 1960, and the Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS).

DSM IV-TR Criteria

The most widely used criteria for diagnosing depressive illneses are from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the current version being DSM-IV-TR, and the World Health Organization's International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, currently the ICD-10. The latter system is typically used in European countries while the DSM criteria are used in the USA or the rest of the world, as well as prevailing in research studies.
The DSM IV-TR diagnosis hinges on the presence of a major depressive episode, which may either be single or recurrent. Further qualifiers are used to classify both the episode itself and the course of the illness. The ICD-10 system does not use the term major depressive disorder, but the diagnosis of depressive episode is very similar. Minor depression is a less-used term for a subclinical depression that does not meet criteria for major depression but where there are at least two symptoms present for two weeks. It does not exist in DSM IV-TR.

Major depressive episode

A major depressive episode is a severely depressed mood that persists for at least two weeks. Episodes may be isolated or recurrent and categorized as mild, major or severe. If the patient has already had an episode of mania or markedly elevated mood, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is made instead. Depression without periods of elation or mania is therefore sometimes referred to as unipolar depression because the mood remains at one emotional state or "pole". The diagnosis usually excludes cases where the symptoms are a normal result of bereavement (though it is possible for normal bereavement to turn into a depressive episode).
Diagnosticians recognize several possible subtypes:
  • - with melancholic features – melancholia is characterized by a loss of pleasure (anhedonia) in most or all activities, a failure of reactivity to pleasurable stimuli, a quality of depressed mood more pronounced than that of grief or loss, a worsening of symptoms in the morning hours, early morning waking, psychomotor retardation, excessive weight loss (not to be confused with Anorexia Nervosa), or excessive guilt.
  • - with atypical features – atypical depression is characterized by mood reactivity (paradoxical anhedonia) and positivity, significant weight gain or increased appetite ("comfort eating"), excessive sleep or somnolence (hypersomnia), leaden paralysis, or significant social impairment as a consequence of hypersensitivity to perceived interpersonal rejection. Contrary to its name, atypical depression is the most common form of depression.
  • - with Psychotic Features – Some people with a major depressive episode, particularly of melancholic nature, may experience psychotic features. They may be presented with hallucinations or delusions that are either mood-congruent (content coincident with depressive themes) or non-mood-congruent (content not coincident with depressive themes). It is clinically more common to encounter a delusional system as an adjunct to depression than to encounter hallucinations, whether visual or auditory.
  • Postpartum depression refers to the intense, sustained and sometimes disabling depression experienced by women after giving birth. Postpartum depression, which has incidence rate of 10-15%, typically sets in within three months of labor, and can last for as long as three months.

Differential diagnoses

  • Dysthymia is a chronic, mild depression in which a person suffers from a depressive mood almost daily over a span of at least two years without episodes of major depression. The symptoms are not as severe as those for major depression, although people with dysthymia are vulnerable to co-occurring episodes of major depression (sometimes referred to as "double depression").
  • Bipolar disorder is an episodic illness characterized by alternating states of mania, hypomania and depression. In the United States, bipolar disorder was previously called "manic depression", but this term is no longer favored by the medical community.
  • Adjustment disorder with depressed mood, which overlaps with what was previously known as Reactive depression.
  • Recurrent brief depression (RBD) is distinguished from clinical depression primarily by differences in duration. Patients with RBD have depressive episodes about once per month, with individual episodes lasting less than two weeks and typically less than 2–3 days. Diagnosis of RBD requires that the episodes occur over the span of at least one year and, in female patients, independently of the menstrual cycle. People with clinical depression can develop RBD, and vice versa, with both illnesses having similar risks.


Major depressive disorder affects about 8–17 percent of the population on at least one occasion in their lives, before the age of 40. In some countries, such as Australia, one in four women and one in six men will suffer from depression. In Canada, major depression affects approximately 1.35 million people, and in the United States approximately 14 million adults per year. An estimated 121 million people worldwide currently suffer from depression.
People who have had one episode of depression may be more than normally likely to have more episodes in the future, so the first time a young person becomes depressed is important both as a personal and public health concern.
About twice as many females as males report or receive treatment for clinical depression, though this imbalance is shrinking over the course of recent history; this difference seems to completely disappear after the age of 50–55. Clinical depression is currently the leading cause of disability in North America, and is expected to become the second leading cause of disability worldwide (after heart disease) by the year 2020, according to the World Health Organization.
A recent study suggested that the diagnostic criteria for depression may be too broad, resulting in diagnosis of major depression in people who are not truly suffering from the disorder, but who have shown normal responses to negative events.


Current theories regarding the risk factors and causes of clinical depression can be broadly classified into two categories, Physiological and Sociopsychological:


Genetic predisposition

The tendency to develop depression may be inherited: according to the National Institute of Mental Health there is some evidence that depression may run in families. Most experts believe that both biological and psychological factors play a role.


Many modern antidepressant drugs change levels of certain neurotransmitters, namely serotonin and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). However, the relationship between serotonin, SSRIs, and depression is typically greatly oversimplified when presented to the public, though this may be due to the lack of scientific knowledge regarding the mechanisms of action. Evidence has shown the involvement of neurogenesis in depression, though the role is not exactly known. This horseshoe-shaped structure is a center for both mood and memory. Loss of neurons in the hippocampus is found in depression and correlates with impaired memory and dysthymic mood. The most widely accepted explanation for this is that the drugs increase serotonin levels in the brain which in turn stimulate neurogenesis and therefore increase the total mass of the hippocampus and would in theory restore mood and memory, therefore assisting in the fight against the mood disorder.
About one-third of individuals diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may develop comorbid depression. Dysthymia, a form of chronic, low-level depression, is particularly common in adults with undiagnosed ADHD who have encountered years of frustrating ADHD-related problems with education, employment, and interpersonal relationships.
New evidence shows that individuals with clinical depression exhibit markedly higher levels of monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) in the brain compared to people without depression. MAO-A is an enzyme which reacts with and decreases the concentration of monoamines such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.

Medical conditions

Certain illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, hepatitis, mononucleosis, hypothyroidism, fructose malabsorption, sleep apnea, and organic brain damage caused by degenerative conditions such as Parkinson disease, Multiple Sclerosis or by traumatic blunt force injury may contribute to depression, as may certain prescription drugs such as hormonal contraception methods and steroids. Depression also occurs in patients with chronic pain, such as chronic back pain, much more frequently than in the general population. Fibromyalgia sufferers also experience depression and anxiety.


Psychological factors

Low self-esteem and self-defeating or distorted thinking are connected with depression. However, it has been proposed that it is the result of depression and not necessarily the cause of it. This is still debated in the scientific community. Although it is not clear which is the cause and which is the effect, it is known that depressed persons who are able to make corrections in their thinking patterns can show improved mood and self-esteem (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Psychological factors related to depression include the complex development of one's personality and how one has learned to cope with external environmental factors, such as stress.

Early experiences

Events such as the death of a parent, issues with biological development, school related problems, abandonment or rejection, neglect, chronic illness, and physical, psychological, or sexual abuse can also increase the likelihood of depression later in life. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) includes depression as one of its major locomotives symptoms.

Life experiences

Stressful life experiences or circumstances may trigger a depressive episode, such as traumatic experiences such as rape, abortion, or grief over the death of a child, spouse, other family member or friends. A depressive episode may also be triggered by other major changes such as unemployment, divorce, or a loss of religious faith. As well, a depressive episode may arise from ongoing issues, such as financial difficulties or poverty, ongoing major health problems (e.g., eating disorders), addictions (e.g., gambling addiction or drug addiction), sexual difficulties, or work-related stress.


The three most often used conventional treatments are medication, psychotherapy, and electroconvulsive therapy.


A patient's doctor may have to change the antidepressant taken, adjust the dosages of medications, or try different combinations of antidepressants before finding the most effective option for the patient; response rates to the first agent administered may be as low as 50 percent. It may take anywhere from three to eight weeks after the start of medication before its therapeutic effects can be fully discovered. Patients are generally advised not to stop taking an antidepressant suddenly and to continue its use for at least four months to prevent the chance of recurrence. For patients that have chronic depression, medication may need to be continued for the remainder of their life. without sexual dysfunction or sexual side effects and without weight gain. Bupropion has also been shown to be more effective than SSRIs at improving symptoms such as hypersomnia and fatigue in depressed patients. MAOIs may be the best medication for a small number of patients, however those patients will have to avoid a variety of foods and decongestant medications to reduce the chances of a hypertensive crisis. This result is consistent with the earlier clinical studies where only patients with severe depression benefited from the treatment with a tricyclic antidepressant imipramine or from psychotherapy more than from the placebo treatment.


seealso Psychotherapy There are a number of different psychotherapies for depression, which may be provided individually or in a group format. Psychotherapy can be delivered by a variety of mental health professionals, including psychotherapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, or psychiatric nurses. The most studied form of psychotherapy for depression is Cognitive behavioral therapy. Several clinical trials have shown that CBT is as effective as anti-depressant medications, even among more severely depressed patients. While the precise mechanisms of change in CBT remain an active area of research, CBT is thought to work by teaching patients to learn a set of cognitive and behavioral skills, which they can employ on their own. This type of therapy attempts to teach people to learn healthier behaviors.
Interpersonal psychotherapy focuses on the social and interpersonal triggers that may cause depression. There is evidence that it is an effective treatment for depression. Here, the therapy takes a structured course with a set number of weekly sessions (often 12) as in the case of CBT, however the focus is on relationships with others. Therapy can be used to help a person develop or improve interpersonal skills in order to allow him or her to communicate more effectively and reduce stress.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy is a more long-term therapy whereby recurring themes and subconscious issues are examined and reflected upon in great detail. It is in this mode that child development, particularly early relationships and childhood trauma are examined. Narrative therapy gives attention to each person's "dominant story" by means of therapeutic conversations, which also may involve exploring unhelpful ideas and how they came to prominence. Possible social and cultural influences may be explored if the client deems it helpful.
Supportive therapy encourages people to discuss their problems and provides them with emotional support. The focus is on sharing information, ideas, and strategies for coping with daily life.
Earlier research initially suggested that psychotherapy, specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy, was not as effective as medication in the treatment of depression; however, recent research suggests that CBT can perform as well as anti-depressant medication in the treatment of moderate to severe depression treated on an outpatient basis.With more complex and chronic forms of depression the most effective treatment is often a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Electroconvulsive therapy

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as electroshock, is a treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in anesthetized patients for therapeutic effect. Today, ECT is a last resort, and is most often used as a treatment for severe major depression which has not responded to other treatment. An estimated 1 million people worldwide receive ECT every year usually in a course of 6-12 treatments administered 2 or 3 times a week. In a study, ECT was shown clinically to be the most effective treatment for severe depression, and to result in improved quality of life in both short- and long-term. After treatment, drug therapy can be continued, and some patients receive continuation/maintenance ECT. Short-term memory loss, disorientation, and headache are very common side effects. Detailed neuropsychological testing in clinical studies has not been able to prove permanent effects on memory.
ECT offers the benefit of a very fast response; however, this response has been shown not to last unless maintenance electroshock or maintenance medication is used. Whereas antidepressants usually take around a month to take effect, the results of ECT have been shown to be much faster. For this reason, it is the treatment of choice in emergencies (e.g., in catatonic depression in which the patient has ceased oral intake of fluid or nutrients). The American Psychiatric Association and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence have concluded that the procedure does not cause brain damage. Like all forms of psychiatric treatment, ECT can be given without a patient's consent, but this is subject to legal conditions dependent on the jurisdiction. In Oregon, patient consent is necessary by statute.

Other methods of treatment

  • St John's wort extract is used extensively in Europe to treat mild and moderate depression. It is a prescription antidepressant in several European countries but is classified as herbal supplement and sold over the counter in the U.S. The opinions on its efficacy for major depression differ. The systematic meta-analysis of 37 trials conducted by Cochrane Collaboration indicated statistically significant weak-to-moderate effect as compared to placebo. The same meta-analysis found that St John's wort efficacy for major depression is not different from prescription antidepressants. NCCAM and other NIH-affiliated organizations hold that St John's wort has minimal or no effects beyond placebo in the treatment of major depression, based primarily on one study with negative outcome conducted by NCCAM.
  • S-Adenosyl methionine (SAM-e) is available as a prescription antidepressant in Europe and an over-the-counter dietary supplement in the United States. A fairly strong evidence, based on 16 clinical trials, suggests it to be more effective than placebo and as effective as standard antidepressant medication for the treatment of major depression.
  • Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is an approved therapy for treatment-resistant depression and is used as an adjunctive to existing antidepressant treatment. The support for this method comes primarily from open-label trials, which indicate that a several month period may be necessary for the therapy to become effective.

Alternative treatment methods

seealso Depression and natural therapies
  • A meta-analysis of bright light therapy commissioned by the American Psychiatric Association found it to be more effective than placebo—usually, dim light—for both seasonal affective disorder and for nonseasonal depression, with effect sizes similar to those for conventional antidepressants. For non-seasonal depression, adding light therapy to the standard antidepressant treatment was not effective. A meta-analysis of light therapy for non-seasonal depression conducted by Cochrane Collaboration, studied a different set of trials, where light was used mostly as an addition to medication or sleep deprivation. A moderate statistically significant effect of light therapy was found; however, it disappeared if a different statistical technique was used. Both analyses noted poor quality of most studies and their small size, and urged caution in the interpretation of their results. The short 1-2 weeks duration of most trials makes it unclear whether the effect of light therapy could be sustained in the longer term.
  • A 2004 Cochrane Review concluded that there was insufficient evidence to judge the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of depression. Although acupuncture showed no difference in the improvement of depression compared with conventional medication, the methodological quality of the evidence base was found to be poor.
  • Exercise, when used in conjunction with medication with non-suicidal patients can have beneficial effects in preventing the return of depression. Patients that completed 30 minutes of brisk exercise at least three times a week were found to have a significantly lower incidence of relapse.Two randomized controlled trials of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which includes the elements of meditation, have been reviewed. MBCT was significantly more effective than "usual care" for the prevention of recurrent depression in patients who had had three or more depressive episodes. According to the review, the "usual care" did not include antidepressant treatment or any psychotherapy, and the improvement observed may have reflected the non-specific or placebo effects.
  • Tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan may be more effective than placebo in alleviating depression according to the Cochrane Collaboration meta-analysis. However, only two out of 108 trials were of sufficient quality to be included in this analysis.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids have been studied in clinical trials for major depression primarily as an adjunctive to antidepressant therapy. A meta-analysis of eight such trials indicated a statistically significant superiority of combinations with omega-3 fatty acids over single antidepressants; however, the authors warned that, due to multiple problems with these trials, a reliable conclusion is difficult to achieve.
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), available as a supplement in the U.S., has been shown to be more effective than placebo for major depression in two small double-blind trials: in one—as an adjunctive to antidepressant treatment, in another—as monotherapy.
  • Zinc supplementation was found in a single small study to augment the effect of antidepressants.

Cranial electrotherapy stimulation

Cranial electrotherapy stimulation devices (CES devices) use electrodes placed on or just behind the ear to generate a very small electrical current. In normal healthy males this microcurrent has been shown to affect alpha wave and beta wave brain activity, which according to the authors,"suggest beneficial changes in mental state". Unlike transcranial magnetic stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation, CES devices are small, relatively inexpensive, and are designed for home use. Unlike vagus nerve stimulation, no surgery is required.
Several double-blind studies of mixed groups of psychiatric patients have been conducted in the 1970s. The results were inconclusive and negative in one of these trials. In another trial, no difference between the placebo and treatment groups were found on any of the five measures employed. A third trial reported overall inconclusive results; however, four out of six clinically depressed patients dropped out of the study because of the massive worsening of depressive symptoms, with two of them becoming actively suicidal. One of the authors of the third study cautioned that CES “should not be used as a treatment of choice” for the patients with the primary diagnosis of depression, “and should be used with caution if this diagnosis is suspected.” Many preliminary, small-scale studies have been conducted which show the effectiveness of CES therapy; however, to date there exists no consensus or even prospective clinical trials to support its use.
All of the CES devices currently on the market have been granted marketing authorization by the FDA based on the legacy waver, that is because a sufficiently similar device had been marketed before 1976, when the new regulations requiring controlled testing were introduced. Such approval is sometimes misunderstood as evidence of efficacy, it should only be taken as lack of evidence of harm. The FDA considers them to be the class III devices—"devices for which insufficient information exists to assure that general controls and special controls provide reasonable assurance of safety and effectiveness"


Recurrence is more likely if treatment has not resulted in full remission of symptoms.4 In fact, current guidelines for antidepressant use recommend 4 to 6 months of continuing treatment after symptom resolution to prevent relapse.
Combined evidence from many randomized controlled trials indicates that continuing antidepressant medications after recovery substantially reduces (halves) the chances of relapse. This preventive effect probably lasts for at least the first 36 months of use.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that chronic disease is accompanied by recurrence after prolonged treatment with antidepressants (tachyphylaxis). Psychiatric texts suggest that physicians respond to recurrence by increasing dosage, complementing the medication with a different class, or changing the medication class entirely. The reason for recurrence in these cases is as poorly understood as the change in brain physiology induced by the medications themselves. Possible reasons may include aging of the brain or worsening of the condition. Most SSRI psychiatric medications were developed for short-term use (a year or less) but are widely prescribed for indefinite periods.


The modern idea of depression appears similar to the much older concept of melancholia. The name melancholia derives from "black bile", one of the "four humours" postulated by Galen.
Clinical depression was originally considered to be a chemical imbalance in transmitters in the brain, a theory based on observations made in the 1950s of the effects of reserpine and isoniazid in altering monoamine neurotransmitter levels and affecting depressive symptoms. Since these suggestions, many other causes for clinical depression have been proposed.
Psychiatrist David Healy has written of the growth of the diagnosis, along with perspectives on the development and promotion of antidepressants and the biological model since the late 1950s.

Sociological and cultural aspects

Evolutionary approaches

Some medical professionals and anthropologists have formed several theories as to how depression may have evolutionary advantages, i.e., how it might have increased genetic fitness in ancestral populations. For example, psychic pain may have evolved in an analogous way to physical pain so that organisms avoid behaviour which hinders reproduction. This insight may be helpful in counselling therapy. Proponents of the psychic pain theory tend to view clinical depression as a dysfunctional extreme of low mood or mild depression.

Cultural references

The former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, one of the most famous sufferers of depression, coined the term "The Black Dog" for it. Journeys with the Black Dog is an anthology of essays of sufferers writing on their experiences. The critically acclaimed 1980 film Ordinary People depicts a young man's torrid course of a severe depressive episode, while the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock film The Wrong Man has the protagonist's wife Rose suffering.


External links

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