We all get sad from time to time, but depression is more than that. If you’ve felt sad, helpless, and lacking in motivation for weeks or months, you may be experiencing depression. This guide explains what depression is, how to recognise it, and where you can go for help and support.
This guide mentions symptoms of depression, such as suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
What is depression?
One of the biggest differences between depression and an ordinary low mood is how long it lasts. We all go through tough periods or have a rough couple of days, but depression is consistent and constant. Doctors see a sudden sad mood as cause for concern if it lasts for more than about two weeks, especially if it’s a change from how you feel and act normally.
Another common feature of depression is something called circular thought patterns. These are sudden feelings of despair, hopelessness, or inadequacy that spring up for no apparent reason and spiral around in your head. If you’re experiencing depression, these patterns of thinking are difficult or even impossible to control and, unsurprisingly, they contribute to your feelings of sadness.
Depression looks different in everyone. Some people are mostly able to manage their responsibilities despite their consistently low mood, but other people find themselves unable to maintain their day-to-day lives. In the most extreme cases, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts at self harm.
One of the strangest things about depression is there isn’t always a reason. Some people become depressed after suffering trauma or a loss, but other people have no idea why their depression began.
What are the symptoms of depression?
Depression affects everyone differently, but there are some common symptoms that can help you recognise it, including:
- constant and overwhelming feelings of pessimism, sadness, or despair
- a lack of energy or motivation, even for simple tasks
- not taking pleasure in things you used to enjoy
- not wanting to be with friends or family members
- feeling irritability, anger or anxiety
- sleeping much more or much less, or any other big change in your sleeping habits
- feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- unexplained aches and pains
- lack of interest in what happens in the future
- frequent thoughts about death or suicide
Accessing support for depression
It might be frustrating when people suggest doing clichéd ‘self-care’ activities to help lift your mood, like having a bath or being in nature. It can feel like they don’t understand the difference between depression and just feeling down.
When you’re in the grips of depression, even the simple stuff like getting up and washing can be a struggle. Be kind to yourself, and know that doing the basics can be enough to make a difference. Eat a balanced diet, or at least try to eat some nutritious food every day. Set a daily time for sleep, even if you find it hard to fall or stay asleep. And do some form of regular exercise – even if it's a walk a few times a week. Guidance from the NHS states that exercise might be as effective as anti-depressants in managing depression symptoms.
Support from family, friends and trusted adults
One of the symptoms of depression can be wanting to withdraw from your family and friends, but they can be important resources for helping you through dark times. If you’re overwhelmed at the thought of seeking help and don’t know where to start, confiding in a trusted friend can be a great first step. You could even set up a regular time to check-in if you feel up to it, so they can help you navigate the rest of your journey towards feeling better.
Men are much less likely than women to talk to family or friends about their mental health. You can read our guide on men and mental health guide to learn more about why this is a problem and you can access resources specifically designed for men, either for yourself or your male friends.
Support at school, college or university
You may also want to share what’s going on with your teachers or pastoral support staff at your educational institution, especially if it feels like your work is suffering. Most universities have systems in place to help students who are struggling with mental health crises, and speaking to support staff as soon as possible will ease some stress on you, and help make sure the impact on your studies is as small as possible. You might be scared that they will be judgmental or dismissive, but their job is to help, so don’t be afraid of reaching out.
Your GP or doctor is usually a good place to start when seeking professional support.They can refer you to specialists in counselling and therapy. It may take some time to find the right style of counselling or therapy, but your doctor can help talk you through the different options.
Your university will also probably have mental health services that you can access directly. Sometimes these services can have a long wait list, though, and things might move more quickly if you get a referral from your GP.
Your doctor can also help you consider whether or not medication might be a good option. There are a range of antidepressant medications available, and they can help you figure out which one is best for your specific needs. Finding the right medication is sometimes a process of trial and error, so don’t panic if you can’t find the perfect solution right away.
If you are thinking of harming yourself or ending your life, please reach out for help.
Help and support is available right now if you need it. You don’t have to struggle with difficult feelings alone. Suicide hotlines are places you can call to instantly speak to someone who can offer you guidance and support.
Befrienders.org offers suicide hotlines in countries across the world, where you instantly connect with someone to help you through this crisis.
We also have guides to can read about What to do if you're thinking of hurting yourself and Accessing support for thoughts of suicide, or What to do if someone you know is having suicidal thoughts.
Good stuff from elsewhere
List of international suicide hotlines
WhatsApp maintains this list of suicide hotlines around the world.
The Mix (UK-based mental health support)
If your doctor has prescribed you antidepressants, there is lots of information here to help you decide whether to take them, and learn about how they work.
Crisis Text Line (US, UK, and Ireland)
Get support by text message if you're in crisis.