Skip links and keyboard navigation

Mental health explained: What is depression?

Man staring out to sea
For many people, depression is triggered by a combination of the factors, so pinpointing an exact cause or trigger is often difficult.

We all have bad days, low moods and times when we may not feel quite like our usual selves. However, if you’ve been experiencing these feelings intensely, over long periods of time (weeks, months or even years), you may be experiencing depression. Depression is a common mood disorder that can manifest as a feeling of sadness, or a sense of numbness and lack of interest in the things that usually bring joy and satisfaction.

Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, depression affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems.

In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression.

More women than men are diagnosed with depression but men are at least three times more likely to die by suicide. Both of these statistics may be, in part, because women are more likely than men to seek help.

Depression can be experienced in different ways by different people, but is often quite crippling for the person experiencing it, as it tends to drain away much of the daily joy life provides.

What causes depression?

We still don’t know exactly what causes depression, but a wide variety of factors may be involved in triggering episodes.

Some may experience depression for many years, regardless of whether they are in a positive or negative personal situation at the time.

For others, a bout of depression may come about after a change in life events.

Personality, family history, drug and alcohol abuse as well as life events or traumatic experiences can all be triggers for depression.

Research shows that long-term difficulties – unemployment, living in an abusive or uncaring relationship, long-term isolation or loneliness, prolonged work stress – are more likely to cause depression than recent life stresses.

Some people with depression have also been shown to have abnormal levels of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) such as serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine.

For many people, depression is triggered by a combination of the factors listed above, so pinpointing an exact cause or trigger is often difficult.

What are the symptoms of depression?

Depression can be experienced by different people in different ways. Symptoms are often experienced most of the day, nearly every day. They can range from feelings of sadness, emptiness and hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, fatigue and lack of energy, anxiety, angry outbursts, irritability and frustration.

People experiencing depression may also find their thinking clouded with negative thoughts about their own self-worth. Thoughts like ‘I’m a failure’, ‘I’m worthless’ ‘I can never do anything right’ and ‘people would be better off without me’ are indicators of depression.

If you suspect a friend or loved one is experiencing depression, there are several behavioural signs you should watch out for. Becoming withdrawn or avoiding activities that usually make them happy, not going out anymore, withdrawing from personal relationships and relying on alcohol or drugs are all behavioural signs of depression.

Thinking about or discussing suicide is also a sign of depression and help should be sought urgently.

Woman with depression

Treating depression

Because there’s no one cause of depression, there’s no one treatment either. Many different treatments have been proven to be effective for treating the condition and different types of depression respond to different kinds of treatments.

Psychological treatments:

There are several types of effective psychological treatments for depression, as well as different delivery options. Some people prefer to work one-on-one with a professional, while others get more out of a group environment. A growing number of online programs, or e-therapies, are also available. 

Treatments often focus on addressing triggers for depressive episodes and working to develop strategies to identify and manage these triggers before they take hold.

These treatments are effective long-term because they can help a person re-program their thinking and change their thought patterns, making it easier to reduce the likelihood of future episodes.

Medical Treatments:

People experiencing more severe forms of depression (including bipolar disorder and psychosis) are generally prescribed anti-depression medication. However, this medication is also often prescribed to people suffering less severe forms of the disorder. Antidepressants work by balancing neurotransmitters in your brain and are proven to be highly effective.

However, it’s important to remember that they won’t change your personal situation, personality or way of thinking. If your depression is being caused by underlying behavioural or psychological patterns, you’ll need to work to address those if you want to treat your depression long-term.

How do I get help for myself or a loved one?

If you think you may be suffering from depression, book into your GP and talk to them. They may be able to refer you to a psychologist to talk to more about how you’re feeling. If they think you will benefit from anti-depressant medication over the short or long-term, they’ll prescribe that for you.

Beyond Blue also has an anxiety and depression checklist that can provide a useful starting point for assessing whether or not you need help.

If you suspect a loved one is experiencing depression, the best thing to do is to sit and talk to them. You can see our previous advice on that here.

The most important thing to remember is that depression is treatable and with the right plan and support, most people can experience a full recovery.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts and need to talk to someone urgently, Lifeline can be contacted on 13 11 14.

Last updated: 20 March 2019