While nearly everyone experiences feelings of sadness on occasion, the term clinical depression is used to describe a much more serious mental health disorder. Also known as major depressive disorder, this is a condition characterized by a period of intense sadness and symptoms such as a change in appetite, sleep disturbances, trouble concentrating, fatigue, agitation, or a loss of interest in maintaining relationships with friends and family. Many people who suffer from depression also exhibit signs of anxiety and panic disorders.
Clinical depression affects about 16% of the population and occurs among people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most cases are first diagnosed during the patient’s 20s, although this condition does occur among teens as well as older adults. More women than men are diagnosed with depression, but some researchers believe this may simply be attributed to the fact that women are more likely to seek treatment for their condition.
The exact cause of clinical depression is unknown, although the condition does seem to have a genetic component. Traumatic events such as poverty, job loss, sexual abuse, or the death of a loved one may increase the symptoms of depression, but researchers are not sure if these stressful experiences actually cause the condition. Illness and poor diet have also been thought to aggravate depression in certain individuals, but more studies are needed before accurate conclusions can be made.
Clinical depression is most often treated with antidepressant medications such as Prozac®, Paxil®, Zoloft®, Wellbutrin®, Lexapro®, or Effexor®. Psychotherapy is often recommended in many cases as well. While there is a growing body of evidence that suggests exercise, vitamins, and herbal supplements may also be beneficial in treating depression, these alternative therapies should not be used as a replacement for qualified medical care.
If left untreated, clinical depression increases the risk of alcoholism and drug abuse. Untreated depression can also make it more difficult for people suffering from chronic illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes to manage their health care. In very serious cases, untreated depression can lead to suicide.
Manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, is sometimes confused with clinical depression. While both conditions involve feelings of sadness, a person suffering from manic depression will have alternative episodes of extreme euphoria. These erratic emotional changes present an entirely different set of challenges for patients in need of treatment.