A project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health

Skip Navigation

Womens Health logo
En Español
divider line


a woman feeling depressed
Learn more about postpartum depression , depression that follows the birth of a baby.

When a person has a depressive disorder, it hurts their daily life, normal functioning, and causes pain for both the person with the disorder and those who care about him or her. Depression is a common but serious illness, and most who have it need treatment to get better.

Different kinds of depression include:

  • Major depressive disorder.  Also called major depression, this is a combination of symptoms that interfere with a person's ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities.
  • Dysthymic disorder. Also called dysthymia, this kind of depression lasts for a long time (two years or longer). The symptoms are less severe than major depression but can prevent one from living normally or feeling well.

Some forms of depressive disorder exhibit slightly different characteristics than those described above, or they may develop under unique circumstances. However, not all scientists agree on how to characterize and define these forms of depression. They include:

  • Psychotic depression, which occurs when a severe depressive illness is accompanied by some form of psychosis, such as a break with reality, hallucinations, and delusions.
  • Postpartum depression, which is diagnosed if a new mother develops a major depressive episode within one month after delivery.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a depression during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for depression for everyone, including women who are pregnant or recently had a baby.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not get better, even with treatment

Return to top


Depression, even the most severe cases, can be treated. The sooner treatment begins, the more effective it is.

The first step to getting appropriate treatment is to visit a doctor. Certain medications, and some medical conditions (such as viruses or a thyroid disorder), can cause the same symptoms as depression. A doctor can rule out these possibilities with a physical exam, by asking questions, and lab tests. If the doctor can rule out a medical condition as a cause, he or she should conduct a psychological exam or refer the patient to a mental health professional.

The doctor or mental health professional will conduct a complete diagnostic exam. He or she should discuss any family history of depression, and get a complete history of symptoms. He or she should also ask if the patient is using alcohol or drugs, and whether the patient is thinking about death or suicide.

The most common treatments for depression are medication (antidepressants) and psychotherapy.

Return to top

More information on Depression

Read more from womenshealth.gov

  • Depression During and After Pregnancy Fact Sheet - This fact sheet discusses depression during and after pregnancy, what might cause it, symptoms you may experience, and how it is treated. It also explains how untreated depression can negatively affect your life.
  • Depression Fact Sheet - This fact sheet offers information on depression, its symptoms and causes, how it is treated, and where to get help.

Explore other publications and websites

Connect with other organizations

Content last updated: February 12, 2016.

Return to top