Diagnosing Depression

Depression is a term that has become popularized in daily usage. Some people will proclaim, “I’m SO depressed” when they encounter minor frustrations – an unreturned phone call or a “bad hair” day – thereby reducing a potentially serious disorder to a mere temporary inconvenience. Obviously, we don’t want to be so casual in throwing the depression label around. When talking about depression, then, what do we actually mean?

depression man sitting on floor


How Does One Diagnose Depression?

In the mental health profession’s formal diagnostic system, depression is categorized as a mood disorder. In common usage, it is known by several names: clinical depression,” “major depression,” major depressive disorder,” “unipolar affective disorder,” or “unipolar depression.” The first thing you should know about forming a diagnosis of depression is that there is no specific, reliable medical test for diagnosing depression, such as a blood test or brain scan.

Instead, there are different signs and symptoms that mental health professionals generally agree upon as evidence of depression. This is the reason why the diagnosis of depression is so variable across clinicians and is the basis for depression being considered a “soft” diagnosis. The primary symptoms include a pervasive feeling of sadness, persistent feelings of guilt, a sense of worthlessness, thoughts of suicide, withdrawing from people, and a loss of pleasure in doing things that normally would be pleasurable to do.

There are formal pencil-and-paper tests many clinicians use to diagnose depression, and these can be useful in helping identify specific signs and symptoms. More often clinicians simply ask about the presence and degree of severity of the signs and symptoms of depression in an interview. A clinical interview is still widely considered the most reliable means of determining whether someone is depressed simply because of how much symptoms and individual experiences can vary from person to person. 

More common than a professional’s diagnosis, however, is the self-diagnosis of depression. People just know when they feel bad too much of the time and certainly know when they’re suffering emotionally. Too often they just try and go on as if nothing is wrong, yet they know something isn’t right. Others may notice, too, and may inquire if they’re okay and even try and offer some help. Whether someone suffers in silence or takes active steps to get help in one way or another is a critically important factor in eventually feeling better. Doing nothing is simply a bad decision yet is the most common one. Too many people don’t bother to try to get help simply because they mistakenly believe that “nothing can help me.”

To be honest, the label “depression” isn’t really what matters. It’s just a label and you are much, much more than anylabel. What matters is that it represents a wide range of feelings and experiences that shape your quality of life. If you think you may be depressed, if you have been persistently feeling bad, if your quality of life is suffering because of your outlook, then going the next step and developing and following a plan to feel better is crucial. Life has its challenges, but it isn’t meant to be burdensome. Life offers plenty of positive possibilities as well.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression


  • Pervasive feelings of sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Helplessness
  • Sense of worthlessness
  • Withdrawl from people and normal activities
  • Loss of enjoyment for things you used to find pleasureable
  • Persistent feelings of guilt
  • Loss of focus/poor concentration
  • Agitation/Irritability/Frustration
  • Spinning around the same thoughts over and over again
  • Thoughts of Suicide


depression man sitting on floor
  • Low energy – Exhaustion
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Lack of Apetite/Overeating
  • Restlessness – Agitation
  • Somatic Complaints (Body aches, pains, problems with digestion)
depression man sitting on floor

Age/Gender/Cultural Differences

Anyone can experience depression, regardless of age, gender, race or culture. How depression manifests is different for each individual.

Each person’s depression is different and can range from having mild to moderate to severe symptoms. Many people continue with their everyday lives while experiencing their depression while others are incapacitated by their depression.

The mental health field has hundreds of combinations of symptoms all leading to a diagnosis of depression. It is important to be aware of all the factors in your specific experience and to not get pigeon holed by any specific list of symptoms.