Depression: When the Blues Don’t Go Away

Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad, but these feelings usually pass within a couple of days. When a person has depression, it interferes with his or her daily life and routine, such as going to work or school, taking care of children, and relationships with family and friends. Depression causes pain for the person who has it and for those who care about him or her.

Depression can be very different in different people or in the same person over time. It is a common but serious illness. Treatment can help those with even the most severe depression get better.

What are the symptoms of depression?

  • Ongoing sad, anxious or empty feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Feeling irritable or restless
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies that were once enjoyable, including sex
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, or difficulty making decisions
  • Not able to go to sleep or stay asleep (insomnia); may wake in the middle of the night, or sleep all the time
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Thoughts of suicide or making suicide attempts
  • Ongoing aches and pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not go away.

Not everyone diagnosed with depression will have all of these symptoms. The signs and symptoms may be different in men, women, younger children and older adults.

Can a person have depression and another illness at the same time?

Often, people have other illnesses along with depression. Sometimes other illnesses come first, but other times the depression comes first. Each person and situation is different, but it is important not to ignore these illnesses and to get treatment for them and the depression. Some illnesses or disorders that may occur along with depression are:

  • Anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD);
  • Alcohol and other substance abuse or dependence;
  • Heart disease, stroke, cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

Studies have found that treating depression can help in treating these other illnesses.

When does depression start?

Young children and teens can get depression but it can occur at other ages also. Depression is more common in women than in men, but men do get depression too. Loss of a loved one, stress and hormonal changes, or traumatic events may trigger depression at any age.

Is there help?

There is help for someone who has depression. Even in severe cases, depression is highly treatable. The first step is to visit a doctor. Your family doctor or a health clinic is a good place to start. A doctor can make sure that the symptoms of depression are not being caused by another medical condition. A doctor may refer you to a mental health professional.

The most common treatments of depression are psychotherapy and medication.


Several types of psychotherapy-or “talk therapy”-can help people with depression. There are two main types of psychotherapy commonly used to treat depression: cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT). CBT teaches people to change negative styles of thinking and behaving that may contribute to their depression. IPT helps people understand and work through troubled personal relationships that may cause their depression or make it worse.

For mild to moderate depression, psychotherapy may be the best treatment option. However, for major depression or for certain people, psychotherapy may not be enough. For teens, a combination of medication and psychotherapy may work the best to treat major depression and help keep the depression from happening again. Also, a study about treating depression in older adults found that those who got better with medication and IPT were less likely to have depression again if they continued their combination treatment for at least two years.


Medications help balance chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Although scientists are not sure exactly how these chemicals work, they do know they affect a person’s mood. Types of antidepressant medications that help keep the neurotransmitters at the correct levels are:

  • SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)
  • SNRIs (serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors)
  • MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors)
  • Tricyclics.

These different types of medications affect different chemicals in the brain.

Medications affect everyone differently. Sometimes several different types have to be tried before finding the one that works. If you start taking medication, tell your doctor about any side effects right away. Depending on which type of medication, possible side effects include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia and nervousness
  • Agitation or feeling jittery
  • Sexual problems
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Bladder problems
  • Blurred vision, or
  • Drowsiness during the day.

Other therapies

St. John’s wort

The extract from St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), a bushy, wild-growing plant with yellow flowers, has been used for centuries in many folk and herbal remedies. The National Institutes of Health conducted a clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of the herb in treating adults who have major depression. Involving 340 patients diagnosed with major depression, the trial found that St. John’s wort was no more effective than a “sugar pill” (placebo) in treating major depression. Another study is looking at whether St. John’s wort is effective for treating mild or minor depression.

Other research has shown that St. John’s wort may interfere with other medications, including those used to control HIV infection. On February 10, 2000, the FDA issued a Public Health Advisory letter stating that the herb may interfere with certain medications used to treat heart disease, depression, seizures, certain cancers, and organ transplant rejection. The herb also may interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives. Because of these potential interactions, patients should always consult with their doctors before taking any herbal supplement.

Electroconvulsive therapy

For cases in which medication and/or psychotherapy does not help treat depression, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be useful. ECT, once known as “shock therapy,” formerly had a bad reputation. But in recent years, it has greatly improved and can provide relief for people with severe depression who have not been able to feel better with other treatments.

ECT may cause short-term side effects, including confusion, disorientation and memory loss. But these side effects typically clear soon after treatment. Research has indicated that after one year of ECT treatments, patients show no adverse cognitive effects.

FDA warning on antidepressants

Despite the fact that SSRIs and other antidepressants are generally safe and reliable, some studies have shown that they may have unintentional effects on some people, especially young people. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed data from studies of antidepressants that involved nearly 4,400 children and teenagers being treated for depression. The review showed that 4% of those who took antidepressants thought about or attempted suicide (although no suicides occurred), compared to 2% of those who took sugar pills (placebo).

This information prompted the FDA, in 2005, to adopt a “black box” warning label on all antidepressant medications to alert the public about the potential increased risk of suicidal thinking or attempts in children and teenagers taking antidepressants. In 2007, the FDA proposed that makers of all antidepressant medications extend the black box warning on their labels to include young patients up through age 24 who are taking these medications for depression treatment. A “black box” warning is the most serious type of warning on prescription drug labeling.

The warning also emphasizes that children, teenagers and young adults taking antidepressants should be closely monitored, especially during the initial weeks of treatment, for any worsening depression, suicidal thinking or behavior. These include any unusual changes in behavior such as sleeplessness, agitation, or withdrawal from normal social situations.

Results of a review of pediatric trials between 1988 and 2006 suggested that the benefits of antidepressant medications likely outweigh their risks to children and adolescents with major depression and anxiety disorders. The study was funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health.

How can I find treatment and who pays?

Most insurance plans cover treatment for depression. Check with your own insurance company to find out what type of treatment is covered. If you don’t have insurance, local city or county governments may offer treatment at a clinic or health center, where the cost is based on income. Medicaid plans also may pay for depression treatment.

If you are unsure where to go for help, ask your family doctor. Others who can help are:

  • Psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed social workers, or licensed mental health counselors
  • Health maintenance organizations
  • Community mental health centers
  • Hospital psychiatry departments and outpatient clinics
  • Mental health programs at universities or medical schools
  • State hospital outpatient clinics
  • Family services, social agencies or clergy
  • Peer support groups
  • Private clinics and facilities
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Local medical and/or psychiatric societies.

You can also check the phone book under “mental health,” “health,” “social services,” “hotlines,” or “physicians” for phone numbers and addresses. An emergency room doctor also can provide temporary help and can tell you where and how to get further help.

Why do people get depression?

There is no single cause of depression. Depression happens because of a combination of things including:

Genes – some types of depression tend to run in families. Genes are the “blueprints” for who we are, and we inherit them from our parents. Scientists are looking for the specific genes that may be involved in depression.

Brain chemistry and structure – when chemicals in the brain are not at the right levels, depression can occur. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, help cells in the brain communicate with each other. By looking at pictures of the brain, scientists can also see that the structure of the brain in people who have depression looks different than in people who do not have depression. Scientists are working to figure out why these differences occur.

Environmental and psychological factors – trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, and other stressors can trigger depression. Scientists are working to figure out why depression occurs in some people but not in others with the same or similar experiences. They are also studying why some people recover quickly from depression and others do not.

What if I or someone I know is in crisis?

If you are thinking about harming yourself, or know someone who is, tell someone who can help immediately.

  • Call your doctor.
  • Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room to get immediate help or ask a friend or family member to help you do these things.
  • Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889) to talk to a trained counselor.
  • Make sure you or the suicidal person is not left alone.

Personal story

It was really hard to get out of bed in the morning. I just wanted to hide under the covers and not talk to anyone. I didn’t feel much like eating and I lost a lot of weight. Nothing seemed fun anymore. I was tired all the time, and I wasn’t sleeping well at night. But I knew I had to keep going because I’ve got kids and a job. It just felt so impossible, like nothing was going to change or get better.

I started missing days from work, and a friend noticed that something wasn’t right. She talked to me about the time she had been really depressed and had gotten help from her doctor. I called my doctor and talked about how I was feeling. She had me come in for a checkup and gave me the name of a specialist, who is an expert in treating depression.

Now I’m seeing the specialist on a regular basis for “talk” therapy, which helps me learn ways to deal with this illness in my everyday life, and I’m taking medicine for depression. Everything didn’t get better overnight, but I find myself more able to enjoy life and my children.

More Information

Depression (Books)
Depression Help (DVD)


A short video presentation that discusses depression and some methods of treatment. Get help with depression. Discover if you are suffering from depression.  Find out some treatment options for depression.


Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental illness characterized by pervasive instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, self-image, and behavior. This instability often disrupts family and work life, long-term planning, and the individual’s sense of self-identity. Originally thought to be at the “borderline” of psychosis, people with BPD suffer from a disorder of emotion regulation. While less well known than schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness), BPD is more common, affecting 2 percent of adults, mostly young women. There is a high rate of self-injury without suicide intent, as well as a significant rate of suicide attempts and completed suicide in severe cases. Patients often need extensive mental health services, and account for 20 percent of psychiatric hospitalizations. Yet, with help, many improve over time and are eventually able to lead productive lives.


While a person with depression or bipolar disorder typically endures the same mood for weeks, a person with BPD may experience intense bouts of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last only hours, or at most a day. These may be associated with episodes of impulsive aggression, self-injury, and drug or alcohol abuse. Distortions in cognition and sense of self can lead to frequent changes in long-term goals, career plans, jobs, friendships, gender identity, and values. Sometimes people with BPD view themselves as fundamentally bad, or unworthy. They may feel unfairly misunderstood or mistreated, bored, empty, and have little idea who they are. Such symptoms are most acute when people with BPD feel isolated and lacking in social support, and may result in frantic efforts to avoid being alone.

People with BPD often have highly unstable patterns of social relationships. While they can develop intense but stormy attachments, their attitudes towards family, friends, and loved ones may suddenly shift from idealization (great admiration and love) to devaluation (intense anger and dislike). Thus, they may form an immediate attachment and idealize the other person, but when a slight separation or conflict occurs, they switch unexpectedly to the other extreme and angrily accuse the other person of not caring for them at all. Even with family members, individuals with BPD are highly sensitive to rejection, reacting with anger and distress to such mild separations as a vacation, a business trip, or a sudden change in plans. These fears of abandonment seem to be related to difficulties feeling emotionally connected to important persons when they are physically absent, leaving the individual with BPD feeling lost and perhaps worthless. Suicide threats and attempts may occur along with anger at perceived abandonment and disappointments.

People with BPD exhibit other impulsive behaviors, such as excessive spending, binge eating and risky sex. BPD often occurs together with other psychiatric problems, particularly bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and other personality disorders.


Treatments for BPD have improved in recent years. Group and individual psychotherapy are at least partially effective for many patients. Within the past 15 years, a new psychosocial treatment termed dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was developed specifically to treat BPD, and this technique has looked promising in treatment studies. Pharmacological treatments are often prescribed based on specific target symptoms shown by the individual patient. Antidepressant drugs and mood stabilizers may be helpful for depressed and/or labile mood. Antipsychotic drugs may also be used when there are distortions in thinking.

Research Findings

Although the cause of BPD is unknown, both environmental and genetic factors are thought to play a role in predisposing patients to BPD symptoms and traits. Studies show that many, but not all individuals with BPD report a history of abuse, neglect, or separation as young children. Forty to 71 percent of BPD patients report having been sexually abused, usually by a non-caregiver. Researchers believe that BPD results from a combination of individual vulnerability to environmental stress, neglect or abuse as young children, and a series of events that trigger the onset of the disorder as young adults. Adults with BPD are also considerably more likely to be the victim of violence, including rape and other crimes. This may result from both harmful environments as well as impulsivity and poor judgement in choosing partners and lifestyles.

NIMH-funded neuroscience research is revealing brain mechanisms underlying the impulsivity, mood instability, aggression, anger, and negative emotion seen in BPD. Studies suggest that people predisposed to impulsive aggression have impaired regulation of the neural circuits that modulate emotion. The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure deep inside the brain, is an important component of the circuit that regulates negative emotion. In response to signals from other brain centers indicating a perceived threat, it marshals fear and arousal. This might be more pronounced under the influence of drugs like alcohol, or stress. Areas in the front of the brain (pre-frontal area) act to dampen the activity of this circuit. Recent brain imaging studies show that individual differences in the ability to activate regions of the prefrontal cerebral cortex thought to be involved in inhibitory activity predict the ability to suppress negative emotion.

Serotonin, norepinephrine and acetylcholine are among the chemical messengers in these circuits that play a role in the regulation of emotions, including sadness, anger, anxiety, and irritability. Drugs that enhance brain serotonin function may improve emotional symptoms in BPD. Likewise, mood-stabilizing drugs that are known to enhance the activity of GABA, the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter, may help people who experience BPD-like mood swings. Such brain-based vulnerabilities can be managed with help from behavioral interventions and medications, much like people manage susceptibility to diabetes or high blood pressure.7

More Information

Borderline Personality Disorder (Books)
Borderline Personality Disorder (DVD)

reprinted with permission NIMH


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