How is Depression Diagnosed?

How is Depression Diagnosed?

Major depressive disorder is a serious mental health condition and the leading cause of disability worldwide. Depression is characterized and diagnosed via a cluster of different symptoms. Symptoms range from emotional, physical, and behavioral. Left untreated, depression can negatively impact a person’s relationships, career trajectory, their school performance, and even their physical health.

In the past, mood disorders like depression were not given diagnostic distinctions. But now, doctors regard depression as a complex disorder that can be broken down into different subtypes. The type of depression a person has will determine the most effective course of treatment. It’s crucial that doctors can make a distinction so the patient can find relief more quickly and effectively.

How is Depression Diagnosed?

What are the different types of depression in adults?

  • Major depressive disorder (clinical depression, unipolar depression, acute depression)
  • Dysthymia or chronic depression
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
  • Bipolar depression
  • Dysthymia or chronic depression
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
  • Bipolar depression

Who can diagnose depression?

Only a licensed medical professional can diagnose depression, and symptoms of depression must be present for at least two weeks for an official diagnosis. Also, other physical conditions that can cause depression symptoms must be ruled out through physical exams or laboratory testing.

How is depression diagnosed?

Depression can be hard to diagnose accurately because there is no concrete way to test for the disorder. Most health conditions can be determined via a blood test or imagery scans. It’s not possible to diagnose depression, or any of its subtypes, with a lab test.

One of the most helpful diagnostic tools for doctors is simply talking to the patient if depression is suspected. Medical associations recommend that doctors screen all patients for depression. Screening is a series of questions designed to uncover serious depression symptoms during routine visits for wellness checkups, chronic illnesses, or even during or immediately after pregnancy.

While a physical exam or a routine blood test can indicate symptoms of a physical illness, depression can only be diagnosed via a series of questions. Talking to patients gives doctors valuable insight into the patient’s mental health status. But even with a series of diagnostic questions, depression is still difficult to diagnose.

Depression can manifest in many different ways, and patients can sometimes display different symptoms. For example, depression can make some people tearful and withdrawn, while others may become incredibly angry and lash out at loved ones. Some depressed individuals may overeat, and others won’t eat enough. To complicate matters further, behavioral symptoms can’t always be uncovered during just one office visit.

Also, depression symptoms can be caused by a physical malady, such as thyroid disorder. Doctors will rule out physical conditions with exams, personal interviews, and laboratory tests. To uncover depression, doctors will conduct diagnostic evaluations, and speak to patients about a family history of depression or mental health disorders. They will ask patients about specific depression symptoms as well.

What are the symptoms of depression?

Depression affects patients behaviorally, physically, and emotionally. Cognition, memory, and concentration can also be negatively impacted. In severe cases of depression, psychotic symptoms may also occur. Some of the most common depression symptoms include the following:

Emotional Symptoms
  • Tearfulness, sadness, hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Irritability
  • Low mood
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Suicidal thoughts
Physical Symptoms
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Random, unexplained aches and pains
  • Trouble sleeping and eating
  • Fatigue
  • Lethargy
Behavioral Symptoms
  • Lack of self-care
  • Missing important events
  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits
  • Lashing out at others
  • Self-harm
  • Suicide attempts

For an official diagnosis, a cluster of these symptoms must be present for at least two weeks. During a diagnostic screening for depression, a doctor may look at the following specific symptoms:

  • Depressed, a low mood for most of the day, or almost every day for at least two weeks.
  • The patient does not derive pleasure from activities that they would typically find enjoyable.
  • A gain or a loss of more than 5% body weight within the last month.
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping almost every day.
  • Experiencing vague feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness most days for at least two weeks.


  • Feeling run down or lethargic for at least two weeks.
  • Fatigue and loss of energy almost every day that is noticeable by others.
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions on most days.
  • Experiencing recurring thoughts of suicide, death, making a suicide plan, or attempting suicide.

If a patient has a cluster of at least five of these symptoms for two weeks or longer, with one of the first two symptoms present every day, they will be diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

Without treatment, depression symptoms can last for weeks, months, and sometimes years. Symptoms can be so distressing that they severely impact an individual’s personality, their relationships, and the patient may even attempt suicide.

Depression is an unpredictable illness. An episode can happen once during a person’s life, or it can happen several times, become chronic, or last for years. Stress and traumatic life events can trigger depression, but sometimes, there is no specific cause. In other cases, a physical condition such as heart disease or cancer can trigger depressive episodes. Having depression can also worsen the prognosis of these diseases. For people suffering from a depressive disorder, it’s crucial that they get help before the illness begins to impact their quality of life severely.

Most patients will respond well to a combination of medication and therapy. Usually, doctors will prescribe SSRIs and SNRIs, but some patients may not respond well to these medications. Up to 30% of all depression patients who try medication will not experience a reduction in symptoms or only a minor reduction. In these cases, patients will need to seek alternative methods. Fortunately, deep brain stimulation techniques such as ECT and TMS are promising alternatives for treatment-resistant depression.

When someone is diagnosed with depression, are they required to tell anyone?

No, depression is a medical condition that is protected under medical privacy laws. Patients with depression are not required to tell anyone they have the disorder if they want to keep their diagnosis private. If you are suffering from the symptoms of depression, it’s never too late to find relief. Please reach out to mental health professional today to explore your treatment options for depression.