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What is depression?

It’s normal to feel sad or miserable sometimes. But if your mood stays low for weeks at a time, keeps returning, or interferes with your life, it could be a sign of depression.

Depression is not the same as being sad, and is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It is an illness, and can have a serious effect on a person’s life and the lives of those around them. In severe cases it can make everyday life extremely difficult, and even lead to suicide.

It can affect anyone, and is one if the most common mental health problems, affecting around 1 in 10 of us at some point.

Research has found that changes in brain systems or the chemical balance of the brain may be at the root of depression. These changes can be triggered by stressful events in life, such as a bereavement, the breakdown of a relationship or losing your job. But for some people, the illness occurs for no apparent reason.

People with a family history of depression are more at risk of developing the illness, but not everyone in this situation will develop depression. Some people are prone to suffering from depression at particular times in their lives. For example, some women may be particularly vulnerable to episodes of depression in relation to childbirth.

Depressive symptoms are also a part of bipolar disorder. Most people with depression do get better with the right treatment and support, but it can come and go.

Symptoms of depression

Depression affects everyone differently, but there are some common symptoms:

  • Feeling sad or low for long periods of time
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Being anxious or worried a lot
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling tired all the time and having no energy
  • Having no motivation or being unable to concentrate
  • Losing interest in things that you normally enjoy
  • Losing interest in sex
  • Changes in your appetite – eating too much or too little
  • Having trouble sleeping, or needing to sleep more than usual
  • Moving or speaking more slowly than usual
  • Thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself

In severe cases, a person with depression might experience symptoms of psychosis (e.g. hallucinations, such as hearing voices).

It’s important to note that a person with depression might not experience all of these symptoms – for example, someone can be suffering from depression without feeling particularly sad.

Getting help

If you or someone close to you has been experiencing low mood for a period of two weeks or more, speak to a GP or other health professional.

At first they may suggest some lifestyle changes and monitoring your mood for a short period in case it improves on its own. If this doesn’t happen, you may need to discus other treatment options.


People with mild depression sometimes get better without any treatment, but in more severe cases they may need lots of help.

Lifestyle changes are usually the first method of treatment to try. Getting more exercise, eating healthily and sleeping well can all have a powerful effect on our moods.

Self-help websites can also be useful, such as LivingLifeToTheFull and MoodGym. These sites are recommended by medical professionals as a good source of information and practical advice on coping with depression.

Talking therapies such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are the next step. Group therapy, couples therapy or bereavement counselling can also be helpful depending on the root cause of a person’s depression.

CBT is a treatment that helps change the way a person thinks and behaves. It identifies unhelpful ways of thinking and can help to break the cycle of negative thoughts.

In moderate to severe cases, antidepressant medication may be required. These medicines work by balancing the chemicals in the brain that control our moods. Many people find them effective, but they can have drawbacks. Some people experience unpleasant side effects, and they can take several weeks to work.

A combination of lifestyle changes, talking therapies and medication is often the most effective way to treat depression.


Adult Depression Screening Tool (PHQ-9 Tool)

Our Adult Depression Screening Tool can be used as a rough guide to spotting some of the warning signs of depression.

Important: This tool is not a substitute for clinical assessment or care. If you have any concerns about your own or someone else’s health or wellbeing, please contact a health professional.

Access our Adult Depression Screening Tool

We have produced a leaflet for young people affected by depression and their parents which is free to download.


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National Centre for Mental Health, Cardiff University, Hadyn Ellis Building, Maindy Road, Cardiff, CF24 4HQ

+44 (0)29 2068 8401
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