Where to Start if You Feel Depressed

Medical Reviewer

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Have you suffered in silence for weeks, or possibly months, knowing that your mood isn’t improving, or is getting worse? If so, you’re sharing an experience with hundreds of thousands of others. For many people, accepting they need professional help feels like a line has been crossed. They are moving from a state of wellness to admitting some kind of mental illness. It isn’t a comfortable feeling, partly because of the stigma still attached to mental illness, and partly because it’s a step into the unknown.

Am I actually ill?

This has probably crossed your mind on more than one occasion. You know you feel uncomfortable and unhappy, and you know these feelings are affecting your daily life, but are you actually ill? The answer is, leave that decision to your doctor. Symptoms of depression occur for a variety of reasons, some of them physical. Hormonal problems, head injuries, heart problems, and cancers can all contribute to depression. Chances are your doctor will want to run a few tests in order to rule such things out before considering other factors.

How to prepare

Make things easy for yourself and your doctor by writing a few things down in advance. If you’ve also been feeling more anxious, don’t forget to include this. Your doctor will say something like, “How can I help?” Be honest and upfront, and get to the point. “I’m concerned about my low mood,” or “I think I’m depressed,” is just fine. Your cards are on the table, and you’ve given the doctor something to work with.

What will your doctor ask?

Your doctor will want to know how long you’ve been feeling bad, whether things have worsened, and how your personal and work life are being affected. They will want to know if you can think of anything specific that may have contributed to your mood. Examples might be job loss or retirement, a breakdown in a relationship, or the death of someone in your life (including a pet). If you can’t think of a cause, don’t invent one. Whether mild, moderate, or major depression, symptoms frequently occur without causes that can be identified.

Questions about your family history and your lifestyle also will be of interest. Have other members of the family suffered from depression? Do you smoke, drink, get exercise, sleep well? These and other questions will help your doctor build a fairly quick and useful profile.

Finally, although not necessarily in this order, your doctor will want to know more about your physical and psychological symptoms. Your list will be helpful. Any aches or pains, low energy, lack or increase in sex drive, changes in diet, or changes in energy levels will be of interest. As for your mood, tell the doctor if you’ve been feeling empty, tearful, guilty, irritable, hopeless, indecisive, or worried, and especially if you’ve been having suicidal thoughts.

What next? 

Depending on the results of your consultation and diagnosis, your doctor will suggest various courses of action. These may or may not include antidepressant medication. Depression considered to be mild or moderate actually seems to respond better with psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, and various self-help strategies. It can take time for things to improve, but expect to have your progress monitored. If your mood slips further, make another appointment.

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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.