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How to Get Diagnosed With Depression

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Depression is a common but serious mental health condition that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable.

Receiving a professional diagnosis can be a crucial step in addressing your mental health concerns, managing your symptoms, and receiving treatment. In this article, we’ll help you understand the process involved in obtaining a depression diagnosis and the next steps after receiving a diagnosis.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Depression

Depression is a common mental health condition characterized by persistent sadness and loss of interest, but these are not the only signs and symptoms of depression. How depression symptoms manifest looks different for each individual, but to receive a diagnosis, medical providers agree that symptoms must be present for at least two weeks.

Here are a few common depression symptoms to look out for:

  • Agitation or irritability
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Chronic pain
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Loss of interest or pleasure
  • Restlessness
  • Persistent sadness
  • Thoughts of death or suicidal ideation

Self-Evaluation for Depression

Before making an appointment to see a health care provider, you can complete a preliminary self-evaluation to better understand your feelings. A self-evaluation can help you identify whether you’ve been experiencing any signs or symptoms of depression and for how long. Several reputable organizations provide self-assessments online, including Mental Health America and the World Health Organization.

You can also track your mood, signs, and symptoms on your own. If you think you may be experiencing depression symptoms, the next step is to talk to your health care provider or a mental health professional to seek their help.

When to See a Doctor

Knowing when to talk to your health care provider about your concerns can be challenging, but remember that you know yourself best. If you suspect you may be experiencing depression, it’s worth scheduling a medical consultation to explore with your health care team.

But if you are curious about how a doctor may evaluate you, providers will refer to the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which the American Psychiatric Association created to provide standard guidelines for diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. To be diagnosed with depression, you must have experienced “depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure” for at least two weeks. These feelings must accompany at least five other symptoms and cause “significant stress or impairment.”

If you’ve been experiencing any of the symptoms outlined above, or if your feelings have been making it hard to go about your daily life, it’s a sign that you should reach out to a health care team member.

The Role of Primary Care Physicians in Depression Diagnosis

Many people don’t realize that their primary care physician (PCP) can play a vital role in diagnosing and treating depression, but they can! According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, PCPs are one of the central sources of mental health care. Here’s how they can help:

  • Screen for depression: During routine checkups, your PCP may ask questions about your mood, sleep patterns, and other symptoms. They may use standardized questionnaires or screening tools to evaluate your mental health, including your risk of depression.
  • Evaluate symptoms and rule out other causes: Your PCP will discuss your symptoms in detail and perform a physical exam to rule out any underlying medical conditions that could be mimicking depression, such as thyroid problems, anemia, or vitamin deficiencies.
  • Provide psychological assessment: If you or your PCP suspect depression, they may conduct psychological assessments or use questionnaires to identify any signs of depression, as well as evaluate the severity of your depressive symptoms to obtain a formal diagnosis (more on this later).
  • Refer to a mental health specialist: If necessary, your PCP may refer you to a mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, to provide a diagnosis and help coordinate your care.

Psychological Assessment or Evaluation

To obtain a formal diagnosis from a health care provider, they will conduct a psychological evaluation for depression. This evaluation is a process that helps to identify the presence, severity, and cause of depression. It can also help to rule out other possible causes of symptoms, including other mental health conditions or substance use.

The evaluation typically involves a clinical interview, standardized questionnaires, and sometimes psychological testing. Here’s a brief overview of what to expect during each part of the evaluation:

  • Clinical Interview: During the clinical interview, the provider will ask about your symptoms, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They will also want to know about your medical history, family history, and any recent stressors or changes in your daily life.
  • Standardized Questionnaires: Standardized tests or questionnaires are used to assess the severity of depression symptoms. Some common questionnaires include the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9).
  • Psychological Testing: Psychological testing may assess cognitive functioning, personality traits, and other factors contributing to depression.

As you prepare for your psychological evaluation, here are some tips:

  • Be honest and open with your primary care provider or mental health professional
  • Be prepared to discuss your signs and symptoms in detail
  • Bring a list of your current medications and supplements
  • Write down any family or medical history that may be relevant

After the evaluation, the provider will discuss the results with you and make recommendations for treatment and management.

Understanding Different Types of Depression

While many people understand depression as a singular condition, there are several types of depression with different symptoms that require different treatment approaches. Here are a few common types of depression:

  • Major depressive disorder (MDD): This is typically referred to as “depression” and is the most common type of depression.
  • Persistent depressive disorder (PDD): Formerly known as dysthymia, PDD involves a chronic depressive state lasting for at least two years.
  • Peripartum (Postpartum) depression (PPD): PPD affects people
  • during or after pregnancy.
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD): PMDD is characterized by severe emotional and physical symptoms occurring before menstruation.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): SAD is characterized by depressive episodes occurring during specific seasons, typically associated with less sunlight.
  • Situational depression: This type arises as a reaction to a specific stressful life event or circumstance.
  • Treatment-resistant depression (TRD): When individuals experience persistent depressive symptoms despite trying multiple forms of treatment, this is called treatment-resistant depression.

Understanding these types of depression allows for a more accurate diagnosis and individualized treatment plans.

Next Steps After a Diagnosis

Receiving a diagnosis can be life-changing. Regardless of how you feel, it’s important to remember that you are not alone and support is available. Once you’ve received a diagnosis, here are a few next steps to consider:

  • Educate yourself about depression: The more you know about depression, the better equipped you will be to manage your symptoms and make informed decisions about your treatment.
  • Discuss treatment options with your health care team: There are a number of different treatment options available, and the best approach for you will depend on your individual needs and circumstances. Common types of treatments include therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.
  • Seek additional support: In addition to discussing treatment options with your doctor, you may also find it helpful to seek support from friends, family, or a support group. Talking to others about your depression can help you to feel less alone and more understood.

Navigating the Path to a Diagnosis

A correct diagnosis can be the cornerstone of managing any condition effectively. If you suspect you are living with depression, recognizing your symptoms, seeking professional help, and understanding the diagnostic process are helpful steps toward effective treatment and management of this condition. And remember: you’re not alone on this journey.

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Originally published: November 21, 2023
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