Depression might be the most common mental health problems in the world, but it can still be confusing to try and figure out on your own if you are actually suffering from depression or if you’re just experiencing normal sadness or grief. Depression can have similar symptoms to other conditions, including mental health conditions and physical conditions, so it’s important to make sure you receive a proper diagnosis before getting treatment.
While there isn’t one specific depression test or depression quiz that can tell you affirmatively whether you do or do not have depression, there are a variety of tests and screening tools that can be performed in order to rule out other issues that may be causing your symptoms, which is the first step to figuring out the right treatment options and getting back on track.
What is depression?
Although we commonly lump the symptoms of depression into one catchall term, there are actually several different types of depression. When most people are talking about depression, they are referring to major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. Major depressive disorder is a serious mental health condition that impacts the way a person thinks, feels, and acts. Major depressive disorder can cause individuals to lose interest in things that they usually love to do, and it can cause feelings of deep sadness for a prolonged period of time.
In general, people must experience symptoms of depression for at least two weeks in order to be diagnosed with depression. Unlike grief and sadness, which are common feelings in life that can result from the loss of a loved one or another tragic event, symptoms of depression are typically prolonged and unwavering.
While people who are grieving or experiencing sadness will occasionally experience moments of happiness or joy, those suffering from depression typically do not, or they are experienced very, very infrequently. Depressed people often struggle with feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem, while those dealing with grief or situational sadness usually are able to maintain their sense of self-esteem. However, it is possible for grief and depression to occur simultaneously.
What are the signs and symptoms of depression?
Although most people think of the signs of depression as feeling sad and perhaps not being able to get out of bed, there are both physical and emotional symptoms associated with depression. Depression can become so severe that it impacts a person’s ability to go to work or perform their normal tasks at home. Symptoms of depression vary from person to person and can range from mild to severe. Symptoms of depression include:
- Feeling sad or appearing in a depressed mood
- Weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
- Difficulty thinking clearly, making decisions, or concentrating
- Increased fatigue and feelings of little energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Changes in appetite, including overeating or poor appetite
- Increase in physical activity without a purpose, such as pacing around a room or wringing your hands
- Difficulty sleeping
- Sleeping too much
- Slowed movements or speech
What are the risk factors for depression?
One of the first preliminary screenings that can be done for depression is to determine if the patient has any of the known risk factors for depression. While depression can impact anyone, no matter their socioeconomic status, age, race, gender, or other identifiers, there are certain factors that put people at increased risk of experiencing depression symptoms and other mood disorders. No matter how perfect your life may appear from the outside, it is possible to suffer from depression. Risk factors for depression include:
- Biochemistry: We often hear that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and this is true for some people. People who have abnormal levels of chemicals like serotonin and dopamine in the brain are more likely to experience depression than those whose levels are normal.
- Personality: People who are easily overwhelmed by stress, have low self-esteem, or have a primarily pessimistic outlook are more likely to suffer from depression than those who do not have these personality traits.
- Genetics: People are more likely to experience depression if a family member has suffered from the condition because depression often runs in families and is influenced by genetics.
- Environmental factors: People who experience ongoing exposure to violence, poverty, abuse, neglect or violence are at a higher risk of experiencing depression
How is depression diagnosed?
While it would be nice if there were a simple blood test that could tell you definitively whether or not you have depression, most depression tests are actually performed to rule out other causes of your symptoms rather than to confirm a diagnosis of depression, since some serious medical conditions can cause symptoms similar to depression. There are usually several stages that are involved in receiving a diagnosis of depression.
Most people’s journey to a depression diagnosis starts with a physical exam by the patient’s regular health care provider. Your doctor will likely perform a physical exam that is intended to rule out other medical causes for your symptoms; these exams tend to focus on the neurological and endocrine systems, which are most likely to cause symptoms similar to depression. For example, hypothyroidism, which is characterized by an underactive thyroid gland, is a very common medical condition that can cause symptoms similar to depression. Hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid gland, as well as Cushing’s disease, which affects the adrenal gland, can also cause symptoms of depression.
People can also experience depressive symptoms as a result of neurological conditions, including:
- Tumors in the central nervous system
- Multiple sclerosis
- Head trauma
- Different types of cancer
Your health care professional will also need to know the types of medications you are taking in order to determine if any of them might be causing your symptoms. Medications like prednisone, a steroid used to treat diseases like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, are associated with depressive symptoms, as are amphetamines, some of which are taken for control of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. Your doctor will also need to know if you use any type of illegal or over the counter drugs, as appetite suppressants, amphetamine street drugs, and illegal steroids can all cause depression when a patient stops using them.
Although most cases of depression can be diagnosed by performing a physical exam, checking the patient’s medication list, and discussing symptoms, sometimes lab tests are needed in order to rule out other causes of depressive symptoms. In these cases, your doctor will draw blood to check for conditions like anemia, vitamin D deficiency, calcium deficiency, and abnormal thyroid function. Other lab work that is performed less commonly to check for causes of depression includes blood work to evaluate liver function, kidney function, and electrolyte levels, as well as screen for toxicology levels.
If your doctor suspects a physical health condition may be causing your depressive symptoms, they may order other tests, including an MRI or CT scan of the brain to rule out serious issues like a brain tumor, an electrocardiogram (ECG) to rule out heart problems, or an electroencephalogram (EEG) to check for abnormal brain activity. However, it is not often that these tests are performed.
After all, physical causes of depression have been eliminated as the reason for your symptoms, your doctor will perform a depression screening test. This screening is typically performed after your doctor has heard about your symptoms and your mood and has a thorough understanding of how they are currently impacting your life.
A depression screening test includes questions that are specifically used to identify depression in patients. A screening most commonly starts with two questions:
- During the past month, have you been bothered by feeling down, depressed, or hopeless?
- During the past month, have you been bothered by little interest or pleasure in doing things?
If your answers to the above questions are affirmative, your doctor may decide to ask additional screening questions to confirm a diagnosis of depression. However, if your answer to these questions are negative, it is likely that your symptoms are caused by something other than depression. Additional screening and self-assessments that are performed to confirm or rule out depression in patients may include:
- Patient Health Questionnaire
- Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale
- Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression
- Beck Depression Inventory
- Center for Epidemiologic Studies – Depression Scale
Sometimes, answering the questions on these screening tests honestly can make you feel uncomfortable. Screening questions may include sensitive topics like sexual dysfunction, suicide prevention, cognition, and more. However, in order for your physician to make an accurate diagnosis and provide you with the most appropriate treatment possible, it is essential that you answer all questions as honestly as possible.
If your general practitioner believes that you have depression, he or she may choose to prescribe antidepressant medication or refer you to a mental health professional for further evaluation and medical treatment. Remember, a diagnosis of depression is not a life sentence, and depression can be effectively treated.
If you’re not comfortable discussing this with your primary care physician, or if you’re looking for an option that’s a little more discreet and a lot more affordable, YANA is here to help.
YANA is an online mental health clinic equipped with the tools to provide discreet, affordable, online mental health consultations and care, all from the comfort of your own home. With a fleet of expert doctors ready to get your mental wellness back in shape, all it takes is to register and get started, and you’ll be well on your way to a long-term treatment plan, with or without prescription medication, to help you figure out what exactly is going on, and what options you have to fix it.
Mental wellness should be accessible to all, so get started with YANA today and see what they can do to get you your fair share of peace of mind.