A Working Definition of Depression
Want the concise version? The U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) define depression as a treatable medical illness. That's pretty vague, but it contains three essential components. In reverse order, here's what each one means:
Illness: Depression is an illness with specific, characteristic symptoms that produce changes in the way you feel about yourself, your world, and your life. To qualify as depression, these symptoms must be ongoing for at least two weeks.
Medical: Depression is real. It's not a figment of your imagination. It exists and it hurts. It affects your body, your mind, and your emotions.
Treatable: There is no cure for depression, but it can be treated. It can be managed with lifestyle changes, medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of these.
Psychologists refer to this condition as clinical depression — a psychiatric disorder characterized by certain symptoms, including an inability to concentrate, sleeping too little or too much, loss of appetite or eating more than usual, anhedonia, irritability, lack of energy, feelings of extreme sadness, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, and sometimes, thoughts of death.
What is anhedonia?
Anhedonia is a term used in psychology. It refers to an inability to experience pleasure from events or activities that should be pleasurable. These events can range from eating and drinking to pursuing hobbies and sports and socializing. This includes sex!
You'll sometimes hear clinical depression called unipolar disorder. This is to distinguish it from bipolar disorder. Uni- and bi- are Latin prefixes, meaning one and two. In unipolar disorder, moods are consistently low. In bipolar disorder, two moods — extreme elation and extreme sadness — are involved, usually with periods of normal feelings in between. Depression can take many guises, and you'll learn about each of them.
Creating a useful, comprehensive, working definition of depression is challenging. The essentials, however, are that depression is a treatable medical illness with symptoms that impact your physical, emotional, and mental well being. Since symptoms can worsen over time, depression should be treated.