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Depression, part 2: Diagnosis and treatment

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman

man with head in hand

Read Part 1 of this article to learn about depression and its symptoms, types, and causes. 

While depression is common, it’s also a serious medical condition. And it’s hard to interrupt depression without professional help. People with depression can’t simply “get over it”—like any other physical injury or illness, depression requires treatment. 

How is depression diagnosed? 

Certified health professionals can diagnose depression. If you think you may be depressed, a good first step is to speak with your primary care physician (PCP). They can evaluate your symptoms and conduct lab tests to rule out similar-looking conditions, like hypothyroidism. Your doctor may or may not give you a formal mental health diagnosis; they may also refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist.  

You may decide to seek help from a therapist or psychiatrist directly, instead of going through your PCP. A qualified therapist can evaluate your mental health and give a professional diagnosis; a psychiatrist can not only diagnose you, but also prescribe medication if you need it. 

Even if your therapist or psychiatrist doesn’t diagnose you with clinical depression, they can offer treatment options for other mental health problems you may face. 

Strategies for managing and treating depression 

Whether your depression is mild, moderate, or severe, treatment and help are available. The best way to help your depression is to seek professional treatment: therapy, medication, or some combination of both. No treatment option is inherently better than the other. Depression is not a permanent state—treatment can lessen its effects, or help you overcome it entirely. 

Speak honestly with your therapist or psychiatrist about any reservations you have about treatment or any past negative experiences with therapy. You may need to try different courses of treatment to find what works best for you. 

Common types of therapy 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) 
The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is to change your thoughts (cognition) in order to change your actions (behavior). CBT’s prevailing idea is that negative beliefs or thoughts drive your negative feelings and behavior. A cognitive behavioral therapist works with you to identify patterns in your thoughts and behavior that contribute to your current distress—including patterns resulting from trauma or stress. 

Interpersonal therapy 
Depression can affect all aspects of your life, including your relationships with others. In interpersonal therapy, your therapist helps you identify your interpersonal problems and develop ways to better connect and communicate with others. 

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) 
EMDR is a form of therapy developed for people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recent studies indicate that it can also help people with depression.1 

EMDR allows you to safely experience and process traumatic memories that may underlie your depression. Using repetitive visual or auditory cues, an EMDR therapist helps your brain stay grounded in current reality while you work through memories, limiting the distress of revisiting trauma. 

Common types of medical treatment 

Antidepressants 
Your doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe antidepressants to help manage your symptoms of depression. They may prescribe additional medications to enhance or dampen your antidepressant’s side effects, depending on how your body experiences the medicine. 

Antidepressants are a valid, healthy way of addressing depression’s effects. Taking them doesn’t make you weak or less “yourself”; they can help your brain and body heal. 

It may help to think of your antidepressants the same way you’d think of taking a decongestant for spring allergies, or heartburn medication after a large meal. These other medications aren’t cause for shame, and antidepressants shouldn’t be either. If your doctor prescribes medication for depression, you should take it. 

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) 
During ECT, you’re placed under general anesthesia while your brain receives stimulation via small, safe electric currents. The currents trigger a brief seizure that can help your brain chemistry. 

ECT can sound frightening, but it’s a safe, well-studied procedure. It can particularly help if you have severe depression that isn’t responding to other therapies. 

At-home strategies 

In addition to professional treatment, you can establish habits at home to help alleviate your depressive symptoms—but keep in mind that at-home strategies aren’t cures. Exercising more and eating better are healthy choices, but they won’t cause you to “snap out of” depression. Depression is a real medical condition that requires real medical treatment, and at-home strategies are most effective when paired with professional help. 

Common at-home strategies include: 

  • Exercising regularly 
  • Eating healthy meals 
  • Eating regularly to avoid undereating or overeating 
  • Establishing a regular sleep schedule
  • Avoiding alcohol or drugs
  • Decreasing stress
  • Investing in strong relationships with family and friends
  • Establishing healthy boundaries
  • Going for a walk outside
  • Regulating your social media intake
  • Trying new hobbies 

When should I seek treatment for depression? 

The best way to help your depression is to seek professional treatment: therapy, medication, or some combination of both. In general, you should seek treatment if your symptoms prevent you from living daily life in a healthy, productive way. But there’s no litmus test for seeking treatment. You can see a therapist without having any sort of mental health diagnosis. Even if you aren’t formally diagnosed with depression, you may discover other struggles in your life that therapy can address, like anxiety

Get help now 

Browse our directory to find a therapist in your area. 

If you’re in crisis or having thoughts about suicide, help is available now. Please call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or text HOME to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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