Depression Symptoms

Key Takeaways

It's essential to seek treatment for mental health issues, and that starts with being able to spot the signs before things get too serious. 

We'll take you through an overview of depression and its symptoms, causes, and treatment options so that you know what to watch out for.

What is depression?

Sadness is a common emotion to experience in response to all sorts of different life events, but there's a big difference between feeling sad occasionally and having a mood disorder. 

Depressive disorders are medical conditions that affect your mood and your ability to function productively and perform everyday tasks.

Mood disorders can affect people of all life stages, including children, teenagers, and older adults. 

In fact, depression affects about 3.8% of the population worldwide

Depression can generally be identified by a consistently low mood or feelings of sadness, but more specific indicators differentiate between mood disorders.

Depression is a leading cause of disability and can even increase your chance of developing other health conditions if you don't seek treatment. 

Treatment options are always available, no matter how crippling your depression may get.

What does depression feel like?

There are several different types of depressive disorders, each with a different set of defining features. 

In general, your symptoms will need to last for at least two weeks to be diagnosed as depression.

Here are some of the most common forms of depression:

Major depressive disorder (MDD)

Also called clinical depression, MDD causes intense symptoms that cause significant distress and impairment in functioning for a period of at least two weeks.

Persistent depressive disorder (PDD)

Previously known as dysthymia or dysthymic disorder, PDD is a form of low grade-depression that lasts for at least two years.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder has the same symptoms as major depressive disorder, but they only appear in relation to the change in season every year around the same time. 

Many people with SAD notice the signs in late fall and winter, with their mood returning to normal in the spring and summer, but SAD can also be experienced in the summer months. It is sometimes referred to as major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a severe form of premenstrual symptoms or PMS. It affects people in the time leading up to their period.

Bipolar disorder

When someone has bipolar disorder, they will alternate between depression and mania, which can cause high energy and reckless behaviour. 

There are two different types of bipolar disorder: bipolar 1 and bipolar 2.

Perinatal or postpartum depression (PPD)

Perinatal and postpartum depression can occur before and after a person gives birth. It may also be called major depressive disorder (MDD) with peripartum onset. The signs are the same as those experienced by people with major depression.

Depression with psychotic features

Severe symptoms indicate psychotic depression, sometimes delusions or hallucinations where the patient sees hears, or feels things that aren't there. 

It differs from other psychotic disorders because the symptoms only occur during a depressive episode.

As you can see, all of the different depressive disorders have a unique set of symptoms that allow a healthcare practitioner or mental health professional to accurately diagnose your condition so that you can access the appropriate treatment.

Symptoms of depression

While the symptoms of different types of depression will differ based on the specific disorder, there is quite a bit of overlap. Here are some of the most common signs and symptoms of depression:

  • low mood, feeling sad or worried, feelings of hopelessness
  • difficulty concentrating and remembering information
  • low self-esteem
  • loss of interest or pleasure in things that once brought you joy
  • avoiding your hobbies or lacking the energy to pursue your interests
  • excessive feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • feeling irritable, on edge, or having anxiety
  • weight gain or loss, increased or decreased appetite, overeating or not eating enough
  • lack of care about your physical wellbeing, disregarding your physical hygiene
  • sleep problems: insomnia (trouble sleeping, racing thoughts keeping you up at night) or hypersomnia (sleeping too much, increased napping, difficulty getting out of bed in the morning)
  • physical symptoms like headache or upset stomach
  • thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, or attempting suicide 

If you've been experiencing any of these signs, you may have depression, and you should speak to a health care professional about diagnosis and treatment.

In order to be diagnosed with clinical depression, a healthcare practitioner will compare your symptoms with those outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 

The DSM-5 has the following requirements for a diagnosis of major depressive disorder or a major depressive episode:

  • the symptoms must be present most of the day, every day for a period of at least two weeks in a row
  • the patient must experience five or more of the following, including at least one of the first two:
  • depressed mood (can be an irritable mood in children and adolescents)
  • loss of interest or enjoyment in almost all activities
  • significant unintentional weight loss or gain or decrease or increase in appetite
  • sleep problems
  • feeling agitated or slowed down enough that it is noticeable to others
  • tiredness, fatigue, low energy, or decreased efficiency with routine tasks
  • feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • difficultly thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts 

In addition, the DSM-5 states that the patient must be experiencing significant distress or impairment in functioning. The symptoms must also not be due to the physiological effects of a substance (drugs, alcohol, or prescription medication) or medical condition and must not be better explained by the schizophrenia spectrum or a different psychotic disorder.

What causes depression?

There is no one known cause of depression, but here are some of the risk factors:

  • a genetic predisposition or family history of depression
  • brain chemistry levels, issues with the brain's neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine)
  • substance abuse (drugs, alcohol)
  • life events or major stress, like a family illness, death, traumatic experience, divorce, and more
  • health conditions: depression can be a symptom of a medical condition, or it can arise as the result of being diagnosed with a health condition

While depression can't necessarily be prevented, you can keep it from getting worse by paying attention to the symptoms and seeking help as soon as you notice a decreased quality of life due to a significant, negative change in your mood.

Treatment options for depression

Luckily, depression is highly treatable. People with depression are perfectly capable of living full and happy lives, provided you seek help from a healthcare practitioner to develop a treatment plan that works for you.

The first step to treating depression is getting diagnosed. 

A healthcare practitioner will use the DSM-5 criteria for different mood disorders to see which (if any) fits best with what you're experiencing. 

There is no physical lab test to determine if you have depression. 

Still, a healthcare practitioner may perform a physical exam or conduct other tests to determine if an underlying medical condition could be causing your symptoms.

Once you've been diagnosed, here are some of the treatments which may help you find relief:


Talk therapy is often recommended for a variety of different types of depression. 

You will likely discuss your symptoms and history to work through your issues and learn helpful coping mechanisms.


Antidepressant medications are sometimes prescribed to people with depression to help correct the issues with their brain chemistry levels. 

Antidepressants take a few weeks to start working, and you may have to try various medications before finding the right one. 

Work with a healthcare practitioner to find a medication that benefits outweigh the side effects.

Lifestyle changes

Increasing your exercise, improving your sleep habits, eating a healthy diet, and developing a support system of friends and family can all help pull you out of a depressive episode.

Brain stimulation

In severe cases of depression where other forms of treatment have not improved, a healthcare practitioner may recommend more extreme treatments like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), or vagus nerve stimulation (VNS).

If you have a specific form of depression, additional treatments may be available. 

For example, light therapy and vitamin D are sometimes recommended for people with seasonal affective disorder to replace the loss of light in the winter months.

Mental health resources

Don't be afraid to use one of these free mental health resources for Canadians if you need someone to talk to, day or night.

Kids Help Phone

Designed for young people ages five to 29, Kids Help Phone has a variety of online resources to learn about mental health, as well as crisis support lines using text or Facebook Messenger, and the ability to call or chat online with a professional mental health counsellor.

Wellness Together Canada

Connect with a supportive community of anonymous people who understand what you're going through, or use their phone line to talk with a counsellor 24/7.

Hope For Wellness Helpline

Offering immediate phone and chat counselling and crisis intervention to Indigenous people in Canada, Hope For Wellness provides its services in English, French, Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut on request.

No matter how bad your depression has gotten, the most important thing to remember is that there is always help available so that you can start to feel better.

Explore your options with a healthcare practitioner.  Start your online assessment today.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, please seek help immediately by going to your nearest emergency department or by calling 911. You can also contact Crisis Services Canada’s national suicide-prevention hotline at 1-833-456-4566 if you are considering suicide or are concerned about someone who may be.

Medically reviewed by


No items found.
Get on-demand treatment for your everyday health.
Find your treatment