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Learning About Depression

What is depression?

Depression is an illness that affects how a person feels, thinks, and acts. It's different from normal feelings of sadness or grief. A person who has depression may have less energy. He or she may lose interest in daily activities and may feel sad and grouchy for a long time. Depression is a common illness. It affects men and women of all ages and backgrounds.

Many people, and sometimes their families, feel embarrassed or ashamed about having depression. But it isn't a sign of personal weakness. It's not a character flaw. A person who is depressed is not "crazy." Depression is a medical illness. It's caused by changes in the natural chemicals in the brain. Most experts believe that a combination of family history (a person's genes) and stressful life events can cause depression.

Health problems may also cause depression or make it worse. It's common for people with long-term (chronic) health problems like coronary artery disease, diabetes, cancer, or chronic pain to feel depressed.

It's important to know that depression can be treated. The first step toward feeling better is often just seeing that the problem exists.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of depression may be hard to notice at first. They vary among people, and it's easy to confuse them with just feeling "off." The two most common symptoms are:

  • Feeling sad or hopeless nearly every day for at least 2 weeks.
  • Losing interest in or not getting pleasure from most activities that used to be enjoyable, and feeling this way nearly every day for at least 2 weeks.

Other symptoms may appear. A person with depression may, almost every day:

  • Eat or sleep more or less than usual.
  • Feel tired.
  • Feel unworthy or guilty.
  • Find it hard to focus, remember things, or make decisions.

A serious symptom of depression is thinking about death or suicide. If you or someone you care about talks about this or about feeling hopeless, get help right away.

How is it treated?

Doctors usually treat depression with medicines or counselling. Often a combination of the two works best. Many people don't get help because they think that they'll get over the depression on their own. But some people do not get better without treatment.

Antidepressant medicines can improve the symptoms of depression in 1 to 3 weeks. But it can take 6 to 8 weeks to see more improvement. Your doctor will likely have you keep taking these medicines for at least 6 months.

In many cases, counselling can work as well as medicines to treat mild to moderate depression. Counselling is done by licensed mental health providers, such as psychologists and social workers. This kind of treatment deals with how you think about things and how you act each day.

If depression is caused by a medical problem, treating that problem may also help relieve the depression.

How can you support someone who has depression?

If someone you care about is depressed, you may feel helpless. But there are some things you can do.

  • Help the person get treatment or stay with it. This is the best thing you can do.
  • Support and encourage the person.
  • Help the person have good health habits. Urge the person to get regular exercise, eat a balanced diet, and get enough sleep.
  • Take care of yourself. Ask others to give you emotional and practical support while you are helping a friend or loved one who has depression.
  • Keep the number for a suicide crisis centre on or near your phone. To find a suicide prevention crisis centre in your province, visit for the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention webpage. If you or someone you know talks about suicide or feeling hopeless, get help right away.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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