Understanding & Recognizing The Warning Signs of Depression
By Sarah Fader
Updated February 25, 2020
Reviewer Deborah Horton
Clinical depression is one of the most misunderstood illnesses in our society today. People often claim to be "depressed" due to a failed relationship, an unexpected life change or one of the many minor tragedies that everyone experiences in life, but this is miles away from the meaning a counselor or psychologist attaches to the word.
Many people don't even realize that they are suffering from depression. Trying to determine whether someone else is, even if you know that person well, is extremely difficult. There is absolutely no way on earth to see inside another human being's mind, and this is true for a highly qualified psychiatrist as much as the man in the street.
The best we can do is to rely on external behaviors and cues, all of which can originate from a variety of causes and are extremely easy to misinterpret. Some individuals are highly demonstrative when it comes to their emotions while others, who may be experiencing equally strong feelings, tend not to show this externally.
For example, some people are extremely introverted. It can be hard to determine whether an introverted person is depressed because they are quiet and often internalize their feelings. Another thing to keep in mind is when a person starts behaving out of the ordinary for them, for example, a change in routine can have a variety of explanations: someone who no longer goes out with his friends as often as before might be depressed and avoiding people, or working longer hours, or may have a new girlfriend. All of these are likely explanations.
In addition, many people who suffer from depression don't want to put themselves out there. Maybe they're afraid of being stigmatized or put into a box. They may regard depression as a weakness that will affect their standing within some group dynamic, or they might not want those close to them to worry about them. It could be uncomfortable for them to reveal their emotions to another person, or they might just not like the idea of others feeling sorry for them. This is a misconception that should be cleared up. Depression does not make you a weak person. Many people suffer from depression and it's a legitimate health issue. You don't need to feel shame for something that is hurting you. You can get help.
However, for these and many other reasons, people who've been dealing with depression for a long time are often experts or "great actors" at presenting a cheerful face to the world, all the while living without hope or joy, day after day.
Talking About Depression
We need to discuss an extremely important point in this article. If you suspect a colleague or friend that may be depressed, think very carefully before you take any action. What you may intend to be a friendly and supportive conversation can easily come across as confrontational. Much of this depends on how well you know the person in question and what level of rapport you have. Many people, whether they are actually depressed or are just going through a rough patch, can benefit from having someone to talk to. You cannot, however, under any circumstances force someone to talk to you about their emotions.
If the amateur diagnosis of psychological maladies is a hit and miss affair, novice attempts at counseling are often ill-advised. Qualified counselors and therapists will often spend several hours and multiple sessions with a patient before making anything other than a tentative diagnosis. They know enough to realize how difficult it is to know another person's internal state. Treatment plans are built over time spent between therapist and patient. Sessions are spent getting to know more about the patient's attitudes, personal history, any life factors influencing their emotional state and more - not just ticking boxes relating to depression signs. Only once all of this is understood does the treatment of whatever kind start in earnest.
A well-intentioned but clueless acquaintance or family member, by contrast, often jumps right in with both feet, unburdened by any real insight but armed to the teeth with preconceptions. It frequently results in, instead of a productive and open conversation, a sermon on how a possibly depressed person "should" be feeling and how they ought to live their life. This approach isn't always worse than doing nothing, but that is the way to bet. At a minimum, this will most likely damage the sufferer's trust in and respect for whoever offers such casual and unwanted advice.
A much better way to handle a situation like this is to let the individual you're worried about know that you are here whenever they feel like talking. Even if it's not on your own behalf, it will also be well worth it to consult a professional counselor on the dos and don'ts of discussing depression, much of which boils down to "Listen, don't lecture."
If you recognize some of the symptoms below in yourself, getting professional counseling can be a good choice. Some people have a depressive episode lasting a few weeks once in their life and then it never happens again, but many others are encumbered with it for years without realizing that it's possible to do something about the situation. Having persistent episodes of depression is fairly common and treatable with a mental health professional that you trust.
Treatment is rarely the easiest thing in the world. There's no miraculous "happy pill" that will make all your problems go away, nor any magical words a therapist can say to instantly cure you. Nevertheless, it pays to try this route, which offers the best chance of recovery or at least improvement in depressive symptoms and a better quality of life. A trained, licensed counselor offers total confidentiality, which is of fundamental importance to anyone who has trouble discussing his feelings or personal history. They also tend to have a large body of experience to draw on. While there is no "one size fits all" method to what they do, having seen dozens of the possible variations depression can present certainly helps in understanding it.
Having dealt with patients from many different backgrounds also means that no counselor will feel that they're capable of knowing what is right or wrong in your context - life's far too complicated for that. This realization only comes through knowing what others are struggling with. Finally, a counselor wants nothing from you aside from a reasonable hourly fee. They don't want your friendship for some ulterior motive, nor do they feel the need to convince you of anything, and they certainly don't want you to become dependent on them.
If you don't feel up to a face-to-face consultation, there are helpful online counseling services available. Online counseling is a safe way to discuss feelings of depression and can be less overwhelming to people who are struggling. Another component of this is that depression often comes with anxiety. If you're anxious about admitting you have depression, speaking to an online counselor can ease that anxiety.
What Are Signs of Depression?
It's a very human desire to want to understand what is happening, particularly when it comes to someone special to us. However, especially after reading the preceding paragraphs, you should be mindful of the fact that there are many different levels of understanding. Assigning a label such as "depressed" to a complex, unique, thinking human being may be easy, but it's not helpful or accurate.
The signs of depression in men can be very different from the signs of depression in women, while the various social norms and individual attitudes mean that a cookie-cutter approach to recognizing illnesses such as depression is going to be wrong 90% of the time. Most people don't realize how widely persons differ. Living in society tends to make us dress similarly, use language, in the same way, keep unusual opinions to ourselves and behave in the same ways as those around us. Scratch the surface, though, and you will discover how exceptional even unremarkable individuals can be. Psychological normality is a spectrum, not a standard.
However, there are some factors common to many sufferers. If someone you know - or you yourself - is displaying several of the following, it might be time to think about what you can do to help. The term "depression" only applies to a condition that continues for two weeks or more - everyone has bad days now and again, but this isn't a clinical syndrome.
Loss of Appetite
Some of us can go a diet, but a total lack of desire for food is a serious symptom of either depression or other medical conditions. If someone's former favorite food might as well be boiled cardboard for all the interest they show in it, something is going on, whether it's depression or not. Since poor nutrition contributes to deepening depression, this can make things go from bad to worse.
Paradoxically, some people who suffer from depression can also begin to overeat. It's not a question of how much and which food a person eats, but a change in behavior that continues for some time that needs to be paid attention to in a serious way.
When someone thinks they have nothing to lose, even physical hazards seem like less of a problem. Compounding this danger is the fact that many depressives are prone to self-medicating with anything from alcohol to illegal narcotics, disregarding the immediate and long-term consequences in favor of escaping a persistently sad, empty state of being at least for a while.
The possible results aren't limited to drunk driving or addiction. In a moment when they aren't capable of caring, depression sufferers may make decisions that will negatively affect their relationships and careers without a second thought. If someone who used to be protective of his physical possessions - a car, a CD collection, anything that has emotional value to him - suddenly becomes careless about it, definitely take notice. It may indicate depression or some other kind of psychiatric evolution, but neither of these is easy to go through alone.
Physical Signs of Depression
Depression is not exclusively a mental illness. It involves the mind, the emotions as well as the rest of the body. It can be a contributing factor to many other health conditions, ranging from heart disease to poor digestion to frequent headaches. Bodily pain that doesn't respond to medical treatment is also common.
The aspect of depression that torments its victims most is certainly the effect it has on emotions. Everybody gets sad or worried sometimes, but having this as a nearly constant feature of your life can wear down even the strongest personality sooner or later.
Often, some small part of this experience will come out in casual conversations. As with any sign of depression, this can be easy to misread. Many people are philosophical fatalists while remaining quite cheerful and enthusiastic about the future.
If someone's comments start indicating feelings of powerlessness, a poor sense of self-worth or a total lack of hope that things will be better at some point, it is time to start listening closely to what they're actually saying. You'll need to listen to every single word (without being paranoid). If someone starts using words like "useless", "stupid" or "why bother" in contexts that don't seem to fit, they might be experiencing a depressive state. If they start talking about suicide or self-harm, even obliquely such as by discussing an incident on the news, it is usually time to get worried. A comment such as "people will be better off without me" should never be ignored. About one in ten people suffering from depression resort to this very permanent solution. The danger is real.
Fatigue, Insomnia, and Lack of Concentration
As with so many depression signs, these can be caused by anything from severe clinical depression to a viral infection to worrying about overdraft fees from the bank. However, if these symptoms persist for a long time, something is certainly wrong. Treating them only on a surface level, for instance by drinking gallons of coffee during the day only to take a sleeping pill at night, is no more than a Band-Aid that doesn't address the more core psychological problems.
Loss of Interest in Pleasurable Activities
This refers to sex in particular. A person's libido is one of the things heaviest hit by depression.
However, it can equally well apply to hobbies such as socializing, playing or watching sports, camping, or whatever somebody used to do to have fun. One of the effects of depression is to suck the joy and significance out of almost everything, regardless of how much it "should" mean or how much you "should" enjoy it.
A Sudden and Inexplicable Improvement in Mood
It may seem like a good thing initially, your friend seemingly over the worst, and now things will be getting back to normal. It would be so nice to have the old him back.
However, this is one of the worst and most critical signs of severe depression, since it often indicates that the person has made up his mind to kill himself and is only marking time until he does so. If this is coupled with steps like visiting or calling family members just to "catch up" or tying up loose ends like wills and other arrangements, the risk of suicide is extremely high. You should immediately call a counseling service or hotline for advice.
Signs of Depression in Teens
Most parents don't realize what precarious situations their teenagers can find themselves in. Society has changed immensely in the last fifty years, and the role teenagers are expected to play in their community, along with their responsibilities and rights, is currently undefined. They are on the verge of coming into their full intellectual and emotional maturity, yet they have no life experience to guide their actions and attitudes and are subjected to dozens of contradictory messages on the subject. It's no wonder that teenagers are bewildered by the world they live in - it would be a miracle if they weren't.
Additionally, teenagers are financially and socially insecure on a purely practical level. If a 25-year-old finds himself in a subjectively untenable situation, there's little stopping him from quitting his job or even packing his bags and moving to another city. A fifteen-year-old has no such options. He can't decide to give up school, can't earn enough money to live on, and probably doesn't have the basic coping skills necessary to embrace the independence he desires. This is a situation that often leads directly to depression - being trapped in a distressing situation without control over your circumstances and with little hope of the situation improving within a reasonable span of time.
These factors, along with things like hormonal shifts and academic pressure, often result in depression among adolescents. The signs indicating clinical depression in teens are much the same as those for adults, with the additional proviso that they tend to be less stuck in a routine and more changeable at their age. They are also less obligated to interact with the world at large than the average adult, which can make them more prone to withdrawing from family and friends if depressed.
They are also often reticent as far as communicating with their parents is concerned. It's not the worst idea in the world to make a counselor available to them for whatever issues they wish to discuss, whether relating to depression or not. A clear understanding of the implications of professional confidentiality will go a long way to enabling them to be able to discuss their problems and dilemmas with someone outside their peer group, which is conducive to making better decisions while also coping better in general.
Signs of Depression in Children
It is estimated that as many as one in three children suffers from depression (thankfully, other statistics are significantly lower). This may seem impossible (and certainly unfair), but the fact is that children are subjected to stresses similar to those adults and adolescents face, if in a different form.
They are hampered by the fact that it's impossible for them to communicate effectively, which often leads them to behave in ways designed to "get attention". Disruptive behavior at home or in school and high levels of anger or irritability may be concealing profound and persistent feelings of sadness.
If your child is socially withdrawn, prone to apparently cause less emotional outbursts or excessively touchy in social interactions, it may mean nothing more than that you have a normal kid who's busy growing up and learning about the parameters of his world. It might also mean that he's struggling with feelings of emptiness and sadness that he's in no way equipped to deal with, and telling the difference is notoriously difficult.
Leaving a case of genuine depression untreated can result in the illness persisting for years and even into adulthood, which will have a negative effect on a person's development. If you are concerned, the only way to determine whether or not a younger child is depressed is to consult a professional specializing in child psychology. This may end up saving both of you a ton of grief.
Approximately half of the depression cases are untreated. Leaving the problem to sort itself out is rarely effective, and can cause the feeling to become more powerful and last far longer than necessary. If you feel that you are suffering from depression but aren't sure, it might be helpful to take a quick sign of depression quiz online or in a magazine to get more clarity.
To a professional counselor, a Signs of Depression Test is of about as much clinical value as reading tealeaves, but they do have their uses. While you shouldn't regard their results - either way - as iron-clad, filling out one of these takes only a few minutes and can help guide your thoughts to the condition of your inner self. While this article focuses on detecting the signs of depression in people close to you, self-analysis is extremely difficult and often painful. If a tendency to shy away from examining how you're actually feeling is causing you to suffer from depression without seeking treatment, you are certainly causing yourself a huge amount of unnecessary discomfort.