How Is Depression Diagnosed? Clinical Depression Tests

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Sadness is a universal emotion that can be an appropriate response to challenges in life. Contrarily, depression is a severe mental illness characterized by sadness, low mood, and a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities. It can sometimes be challenging to determine whether one is experiencing sadness or a more serious mental health concern. One way to understand the difference is by receiving a professional diagnosis or taking a depression test, which can be done in various ways.

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What is a depression test?

A depression test is a screening questionnaire that asks questions about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors over the past two weeks to screen for depressive symptoms and disorders. If you take a depression test online or on your own, it may not be an official or accurate result. Note that online tests do not replace a diagnosis from a licensed professional. Reach out for guidance from your primary care provider or a mental healthcare professional for further screening if you receive a positive result online.  

Official depression screening tools 

An example of an official depression screening is the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), developed by Doctors Robert L. Spitzer, Janet B.W. Williams, Kurt Kroenke, and colleagues. The PHQ-9 assesses depression symptoms based on how a person describes the frequency with which they’ve been bothered by a series of problems in the last two weeks. The multiple-choice options span the following options:

  • “Not at all” 
  • “Several days”  
  • “More than half the days” 
  • “Nearly every day” 

A sample of the PHQ-9 is quoted below:

Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by the following problems?

  1. Little interest or pleasure in activities
  2. Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
  3. Trouble falling or staying asleep or sleeping too much
  4. Exhaustion or little energy
  5. Poor appetite or overeating
  6. Believing you are a failure or have let yourself or your family down
  7. Difficulty concentrating on daily tasks 
  8. Moving or speaking so slowly that other people could have noticed 
  9. Being more fidgety or restless than usual
  10. Thoughts that you would be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way

If the individual has experienced one or more of the concerns above over the last two weeks, they are asked how difficult those problems have made it for them to do their work, take care of tasks at home, or get along with others. 

If you’ve been bothered by feelings, thoughts, or behaviors from the depression test above, or if you are wondering if you might be depressed, the most effective way to receive answers is by speaking to a mental healthcare professional. Support is available, and there are effective options for treating depression. Know that you are not alone. Many people experience depression. In 2020, 8.4% of adults in the US experienced a major depressive episode, equivalent to 21 million people.

Diagnosing depression

When diagnosing depression, healthcare professionals and other mental health providers can use multiple tools and tests to identify symptoms. If you’re looking up questions about whether you have depression, you might be at the point where reaching out for help could be valuable.

When you meet with a healthcare provider about depression, they’ll work with you to determine your diagnosis and the individualized treatment plan that may best suit your needs. In addition, they may perform the following diagnostic steps. 

Discussing your symptoms 

When you first meet with a healthcare professional, they may ask about your symptoms and experiences. Topics may include:

  • Your mood 
  • Lack of enjoyment or interest in previously enjoyed activities 
  • Change in weight or appetite
  • Sleep patterns, such as insomnia (lack of sleep) or sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or feelings of fatigue
  • Thoughts of worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Irritability 
  • Use or misuse of substances
  • Chronic or significant stressors
  • Challenges with functioning at home or work and in relationships
  • Thoughts of self-harm

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

The healthcare provider might use a diagnostic test that addresses these symptoms or others. The National Institute of Mental Health explains that for depression to be diagnosed, symptoms must be present throughout the day for most days in a two-week period.

Evaluating physical symptoms 

A professional may also look at whether you are experiencing common physical symptoms of depression, like the following: 

  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches or digestive symptoms 
  • Constant exhaustion 
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Slow physical movement
  • Limb pain, joint pain, or back pain

Examining health history

Before a diagnosis is made, your physician may ask you about your heal history, including the following details:

  • Your physical and mental health history
  • Your family history, including information about relatives who may have lived with or are currently experiencing mental health conditions 

Performing lab tests 

To evaluate possible physical contributors to depression, your doctor might order lab tests. Examples of contributors can include:

  • Viruses
  • Illnesses
  • Medications
  • Hormonal deficiencies or imbalances
  • Vitamin deficiencies

Considering risk factors 

Depression can affect anyone, but there are some common risk factors, including the following: 

  • Biochemistry: Certain chemicals in the brain may contribute to depression.
  • Personality: People with certain personality traits (such as a pessimistic outlook, negative self-esteem, or a tendency to be stressed) may be more prone to depression.
  • Genetics: Depression can run in families.
  • Environment: Exposure to neglect, abuse, loss, violence, poverty, or other challenging conditions may contribute to depression.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

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Treatment options for depression

If your healthcare provider diagnoses you with depression, they can work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan. A treatment plan may include medication, psychotherapy (talk therapy), or a combination of the two. Self-care is also often part of a treatment plan. Below are further examinations of these options. 

Medication

Medications are often available to treat depression. However, medications must be prescribed by a medical doctor like your primary care physician or a psychiatrist. Consult your doctor before starting, changing, or stopping any medication. 

Your doctor can work with you to find a medication that manages your symptoms and offers guidance about what to expect. Your doctor can also help you understand the possible side effects of medication. If you are taking medication, contact your prescribing physician with questions or concerns. 

Therapy

Therapy, also called psychotherapy or talk therapy, can be a vital part of an effective treatment plan for depression. In therapy, you can work with a trained professional to learn to restructure thoughts to change habits that may contribute to depression. You may identify life events (past and present) that could be contributing to depression and find healthy ways to change them or accept them and move forward. 

You might work on goal-setting and realistic, healthy ways to meet your goals. You might focus on developing healthy coping skills to manage symptoms and prevent and manage depression in the present and future. In this way, you can learn ways to have healthier, more positive thoughts and behaviors.

How to use self-care to treat depression

While depression can make it challenging to take steps to help you feel better, taking care of yourself has been proven to reduce some symptoms. Below are a few options to consider. 

Connect with others 

Depression may cause an urge to withdraw from friends and family and can seem isolating. However, staying connected with others—particularly those who make you feel safe and cared for—can offer you a sense of support. You might also find meaningful connections by volunteering, caring for a pet, or joining a support group.

Partake in hobbies 

Depression can deplete your energy, but trying to partake in activities you used to enjoy, even if you don’t anymore, may be beneficial. While it may take some motivation to get going, you may gradually recognize how being active or out in the world can improve your mood and help you work through these symptoms. 

Care for your physical needs 

Regular, healthy sleep patterns may improve your mood. Eating a nutritious diet can also help manage depression, as can exercise and stepping outdoors.

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Face depression with professional, compassionate support

Alternative support options 

With the help of a mental health professional, you can find ways to control or lessen the severity of your depression symptoms, get to the root of the symptoms, and improve your emotional well-being. If you are interested in seeking help but commuting to an in-person appointment feels exhausting, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be an option. 

With online therapy, you can match with a therapist online and speak with your therapist virtually wherever is most comfortable if you have a reliable internet connection. Plus, research has found that online therapy can be an effective option for treating depression. For instance, one study concluded that an internet-based intervention for depression could be equally beneficial to regular face-to-face therapy.

Takeaway

If you are experiencing depression, contact your doctor or a mental health professional for support. While learning more about depression and some common assessments for evaluating depression can be helpful, seek professional help if you have questions about depression or require support. For further support with depression, you can connect with a licensed therapist online or in your area.

Hear from some of BetterHelp’s users who have benefited from our counselors in treating their depression:

“I worked with Sarah for some months last year, while struggling a lot with depression, relationship issues, and my self-esteem. It was a really difficult time in my life, but I must say that Sarah really helped me a lot. Before I had some bad experiences with therapists, feeling that they didn’t really see me and understand what I needed help with, but with Sarah it was so different! From the very first session, I felt like she got me, knew what I needed, and that she managed to see the connection between my issues and my background. Working with her truly helped me a lot with moving out of my depression, battling the issues in my relationships and maybe most importantly, getting my self-esteem back and truly loving myself. I’d absolutely recommend Sarah, and I’d most definitely trust her again if life gives me lemons again!”

“I have had chronic mild depression my whole 50-year life. Been to therapy, once long-term, and several other attempts where I did not connect, including a couple on BetterHelp, but made minimal progress. Laura is the first person who I felt has been able to zero in on the root problem and offer a path to recovery, and for the first time I am cautiously optimistic that with her help she can prod me and work with me to finally achieve happiness”

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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