From A Medical Perspective: Is Depression A Mental Illness?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell

How often is sadness expressed as depression?  Often people use the term depression to describe normal human sadness.  For many people, depression and sadness are simply used as synonyms;  not a measure of mental health. While it may be true that a symptom of depression is sadness, being sad does not necessarily mean that an individual is depressed. In fact, from a medical perspective, depression is an actual mental illness. Medical professionals refer to depression as a major depressive disorder. This term refers to severe feelings that interfere with everyday life and living.

What is Mental Illness?

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The simplest definition of mental illness is a sickness of the mind. Most commonly, mental illnesses are those that alter moods, the way people behave, and/or how they think. Mental health issues such as these are often depressive disorders or a bipolar disorder, in addition to a number of other possibilities. Since mental health concerns and illnesses are those that change a person’s mind, it is fair to assume that depression is a mental illness. Getting a deeper understanding of depression can help explain how this disorder is in fact a medical mental illness, rather than simply being sad.

What is Depression?

At its root, depression is a mood disorder that affects an individual’s mental health. In the most common cases of depression, people experience a sense of sadness and lack of interest in life or activities. Mood disorder has the ability to completely change a person and the way that they live life. If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, you may notice that you no longer behave or think in the same manner that you once did. You may also find that physical illness and health concerns accompany depression. Depression can affect anyone, but typically the specific types of the disorder latch on to a certain demographic.

Types of Depression

There are several types of depression that can be experienced. From postpartum to psychotic,  depression can capture the mind of all kinds of people in various states of mental health. Although each type of depression has a list of symptoms, specific feelings, and demographic qualities, understanding the medical background of these disorders is imperative in proving depression as a mental illness.

Postpartum Depression

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What is it about postpartum depression that marks it as a mental illness? A case of postpartum depression makes it hard for new moms to take care of themselves and their babies. This mental health concern occurs when postpartum depression puts so much pressure on the mother’s mind that she is unable to fully focus on keeping herself and her child healthy and safe. As most mothers understand, caring for your child is your utmost desire. To feel unable to do so does more than suggest that depression is a mental illness.

Bipolar Depression

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes an individual to swing from extremely happy to extremely sad quickly and often without warning. In order for a brain to go from one end of the spectrum to the other, mental illness seems apparent. It is one mental health disorder that is associated with depression, but also with other forms of mental illness.

Psychotic Depression

When it comes to psychotic depression, individuals experience delusions in addition to their low moods. These delusions often stick to the same ideas, such as believing they are terminally ill when that is not the case. The mind tricks the sufferer into various untrue and serious beliefs, leaving their mental health in a state of concern.

Persistent Depressive Disorder

When someone experiences a sense of depression for two years or more, they may have a persistent depressive disorder. Although he or she may have moments of less severe depression throughout those two years, the steady presence of extreme lows indicates this type. This is a mental illness that is especially hard on the individual for a long period of time and severe for overall mental health.

Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder

The symptoms of depression include various feelings, thoughts, and outward appearances. Although physical aspects of depression are typically the result of other symptoms, there are some things to look for when seeking indicators. Identifying depression and seeking assistance starts with knowing what symptoms to look for. Only then can you begin to improve your mental health.

Some of the most common symptoms that might occur when you have a major depressive disorder include, but are not limited to:

  • Feelings of prolonged sadness
  • Extreme changes in sleep patterns
  • Diet changes
  • Overall lack of interest in things previously enjoyed
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Irritable
  • Pessimistic
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Experiencing one or more of the above-listed symptoms may mean that your mental health is not at its best. Given that each of the symptoms for depression can have a major effect on an individual and his or her life, it is safe to assume that it truly is a mental illness.

How Do People Get Depressed?

Are people born with an increased chance to get depressed? Do life circumstances lead them to depression? Is it random? Each of these is a valid question when it comes to depression. The truth is, there are a number of reasons and situations in which depression might be more prominent in some people. It is also true that some people see or experience things that alter their mental health and state in such a way that depression can take over the mind.

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Traumatic events in one’s life can lead to depression over time and alter mental health in a negative light. This is especially for those that experienced such things in childhood. Abuse, abandonment, and loss are common childhood traumas that change the brain and make an effect well into adulthood. Trauma can also be experienced in adulthood and be the onset of depression or other mental illnesses.

Abusing drugs and alcohol is another way depression can make its way into someone’s life. Sadly, alcohol serves to worsen depression, so the abuse of the substance will never allow for healing. Alcohol and drug abuse are never good for one’s mental health.

Injury or illness can also contribute to the start of the depression. This is often because of the individual’s circumstances, the inability to go out, or the feeling of constant pain. Many times, depression begins to heal when the injury or illness has improved, but that is not always the case. Monitoring your mental health in the case of injury or illness may be as important as keeping track of other components.

Family medical history seems to play a role in whether an individual is susceptible to depression. Studies have shown that depression can become a genetic trait for family members’ mental health status. If a family member suffers from depression, you may be likely to suffer the same. Sometimes this is when another cause has occurred, and genetics leave the mind to respond with depression.

No matter the cause, there are treatment options available for those suffering from depression. There is no reason to continue suffering alone in a mental health crisis. Discovering the best treatment option for you begins with knowing what is available to you.

Treatment Options for Depression

Perhaps the most recommended form of treatment for depression is counseling. You may opt to go to a physical office, or you might even choose to do counseling online, both of which can be of great help. Talking out the thoughts that fill your mind and hearing how a counselor might reorganize or restructure those thoughts can help you to see the truth. Remember, just because your mind tells you so doesn’t make it true. Learning how to determine what’s real and what’s in your mind is a skill that counselors can teach you for the betterment of your mental health.

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Another option for treatment is medication. Although some people put forth their efforts in therapy prior to trying a medication, others prefer to try the medication first. It is imperative that you speak with your doctor about the best treatment options for you and your mental health. Since medications often come with side effects, it is important that you weigh the pros and cons of taking a medication.

Some people believe that acupuncture and meditation are alternate forms of working through depression and various mental health concerns. There are also other forms of therapy and an exercise regimen that might assist in healing your mind. No matter which form of treatment you ultimately decide to go with, learning how to move past depression is something that can be done. Getting the help you need is what is most important.

Accepting Depression as a Mental Illness

Although it may be a taboo topic, it is safe to say that depression is truly a mental illness. Medicine has identified it as such. With the symptoms that cut into all areas of a person’s life, the toll it takes on their mind, and the physical harm that can occur as a result, seeing depression as anything but mental illness is dangerous. Mental health is important to all people and the treatment of mental illnesses needs to be a priority for everyone.

As a mental illness, depression can alter the mind in ways that are hard to understand. If you have experienced depression or know someone that has, you can see how life changes. Accepting the truth about this illness is necessary for the future of treatment. The days of turning a blind eye to depression are gone – with that individuals can receive treatment for their mental illness without shame or jumping through hoops. Mental health is an important component of health, in general, and should be treated as such.


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