January 11th, 2011
02:58 PM ET

Do I have major depression?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Tuesdays, it's Dr. Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, and an expert in the mind-body connection for health.

Question asked by Belle of Dallas, Texas:

Hi, I am a teen in high school and I was wondering whether or not I should talk to my doctor, again, about taking medicine for depression. I have been so depressed for roughly two years, however it has progressively gotten worse. I have done some research and I have almost all the symptoms of depression.
I have told many trusted adults including my own parents, my doctor, and my siblings, however all of them just say it's just a phase I'm passing through. Truly though, I know what I'm feeling and doing is not normal; my grades are dropping, I have gained weight, I have withdrawn from society, I am always tired, my period is late, I never feel happy, some days, I sleep way too much, and I wake up angry, sad, or crying.

Expert answer:

I am sorry to hear of your difficulties. You are having a "textbook" major depression, with all the symptoms that are especially common when teenagers get depressed. Eating too much, sleeping too much - these are classic markers for serious depression in young people. It's paradoxical, but when it comes to depression, the more a person sleeps the more tired she feels. Sleeping too much almost always goes with feeling exhausted. You don't mention it, but it's common for depressed people who eat and sleep too much to also have feelings of extreme heaviness in their arms and legs.

Based on what you describe, I strongly disagree with anyone who tells you this is just a phase, which usually is code talk for "just ignore it." The scientific data are very clear that when someone has the symptoms you do, it is imperative she gets treatment, and the sooner the better.

For example, a recent study showed that teenagers who develop depression and are treated with an antidepressant do much better for a number of years afterward than kids who get depressed and don't get treatment. Psychotherapy is also very effective and would be another very good option for you, depending on what your circumstances allow.

Let me make an additional comment, more in the way of something to watch out for than anything you need to worry about now. We know from lots of studies that people who have the kind of depression you've got (eating too much, sleeping too much, etc.) are at increased risk of developing bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression, when they get older. This is a very serious, but very treatable condition that is best addressed early on.

What differentiates bipolar disorder from regular depression is that folks with bipolar disorder have what are called manic or hypomanic episodes during which they become very energized, sometimes euphoric, sometimes enraged. They don't need much sleep and often do risky things they regret later.

I don't bring all this up to worry you more, but only so that you can use that great common sense of yours, and ability to research things, to keep an eye on yourself. And by all means, please go talk to your doctor about getting treatment as soon as you can.

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Kelly Oleson

    I am glad to see someone is taking this girl seriously. Please show this article and comment to your parents. Depression is a serious illness. If you had diabetes your parents and loved ones would want the best treatment and care for you, would they not? You sound strong, keep advocating for yourself. You deserve the best care.

    January 11, 2011 at 15:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Moodyme

    I had periods of depression as a teen (ignored by parents, teachers and physician), but plummeted into a major depression in my twenties. At that time, depression was neither discussed much nor widely treated. I lost a few years to it, never got a footing in my career because of it, destroyed good relationships, withdrew from friends and family. Ruined my life by burning too many bridges and not taking opportunities offered to me. I had another major bout of depression in my forties and, as mentioned in the article, had mood swings that would probably tag me "manic-depressive" ...if I went for a diagnosis. Over the years I have figured out how to deal with my problem through nutrition and exercise, and my short experience with mood meds has been disappointing up to now. But I've recently been prescribed an SNRI drug for another medical issue, and it seems to be evening out my moods without (shocked!) the usual, horrible side effects. I wish this had been around when I was twenty!

    January 11, 2011 at 15:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jessica

    Get help soon. Life is worth living and can and will be fun again. Just takes some time and the right meds. I've been there too.

    January 11, 2011 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Anne

    How I wish I would have had someone take me seriously decades ago as Dr. Raison has done here. This has never gone away and indeed has gotten worse as I've gotten older. It has robbed me of decades of my life. As one other poster suggested, reprint this article at middle & high schools. Depression still has a terrible stigma attached to it, is not taken serioulsy, yet is incredibly debilitating and can be very dangerous. THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS!

    January 11, 2011 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. aly

    I have been suffering from depression and anxiety my whole life. I was even an anxious child and I think the depression came from the constant worrying. When I mentioned it to my parents they also told me it was just a phase. Only after having a major episode after the birth of my child did a doctor suggest antidepressants. WOW. It was like my entire personality changed. I can't believe I suffered unnecessarily for so long. Depression is a disease and it effects your entire well being. I developed headaches, the anxiety caused heart burn, I was even afraid to swallow my food because I thought I would choke on it. Some people just have a chemical imbalance and it needs to be treated just like any other disease.

    January 11, 2011 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dani

      I had a very similar experience. I remember it starting as early as the 4th grade. Over the years, my anxiety got so bad that I would practically go into a panic attack with something as trivial as if my husband came home a few minutes late from work. I finally got help five years ago after my son was born and I feel like a completely new person. I just wish I would've gotten help sooner because I wasted a lot of years worrying about nothing. However, I really appreciate my life now. It's good to know that I'm actually normal, and was suffering from a medical condition. Just for the record, the "Well, quit worrying about it," or "Just snap out of it," advice doesn't work.

      January 12, 2011 at 10:36 | Report abuse |
  6. Liz

    I would also test that girl for PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome). That can make you gain weight, be depressed, and have a late period. If she goes on a low glycemic diet and 2,000 mg of metformin per day, she could feel like a new girl. Worth a try. She needs to get an androgen panel done. Also, a TSH and T3 test would be good to check thyroid function.

    January 11, 2011 at 19:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Flanna

      I agree with Liz, too. An underactive thyroid could be producing or worsening all these symptoms. Switching doctors might be a good idea also.

      January 12, 2011 at 07:59 | Report abuse |
    • Dani

      I agree! Vitamin D levels should be checked too. PCOS, thyroid, and hormone levels may not be causing the depression, but they may be exacerbating it and making it even worse.

      January 12, 2011 at 10:38 | Report abuse |
  7. katrina

    I wholeheartedly agree with Liz about checking for PCOS – in addition, a full health physical should be done.

    January 11, 2011 at 19:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. catherine

    II think it's important to recognize whatever the conditions we experience whether sad, happy, or neutral feelings, etc., and notice how it is at any particular moment in the day, how it may change from time to time. All of this is to better understand the baseline of how our body or mind operates at at given moment. In a course of of a long time this observation will give us a better picture of how our mind and body operate and help us accept the condition better for what it is. After all some time we can't change it for what it is, even though some time there are medicines that may help relieve certain ailments we have. This close observation will also keep our problem more objective – that is we are being observer and the problem is just something that happens and is not necessarily something we have to identify with as ours. So I think the fact that you are open up to examine your depression closely is something very positive and in the long run with medical help I hope it will pay off. I certainly have been there before, and just like anything else you have seen in life, whatever you are experiencing now will change with the course of time. In that sense, I would be optimistic that things will get better.

    January 11, 2011 at 20:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Bob

    Be very careful with prescription Anti-depressants, there is a suicidal warning for children for a reason.. Counseling and psychotherapy are a good place to start.. Get yourself educated to the different therapies out there to treat depression.. If you do choose the anti-depressant route find a competent psychiatrist who is an expert in drug therapy and mental health. Some anti-depressants can be hard to get off of and cause serious side-effects.. Your Doctor maybe only familar with drug therapy and not be aware of other types of therapy.. A good diet, good sleep patterns and exercise are helpful too. Stay away from alcohol, it is a major depressive..

    January 11, 2011 at 23:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. rh

    Yes, it sounds like major depression, but no, I wouldn't jump on the medication bandwagon. I had what was clearly clinical depression from ages 12 to 14, and looking back, it was probably because my brother was beating the crap out of me and my parents didn't care. I also cut myself during that time, however not severely.

    What ended up working for me, since there was at the time no option for treatment (no one knew and my grades were still good), and reaching out would have resulted in being committed likely, is that I started to pursue playing sports in HS. Physical activity, plus the interaction with others, helped me a lot. I also learned normal eye contact in HS, on my own – at the time, no one thought twice about a girl who would not make eye contact with teachers or fellow students.

    I would also consider finding out if there is a hormonal reason for these emotions. I had dysmenorrhea for years, with very heavy bleeding, around the same ages. This helped to isolate me, and I noticed an improvement in my mood when I didn't have to deal with heavy periods for 10 – 14 days per 22 day cycle...

    January 11, 2011 at 23:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. team curry

    Kudos to you for recognizing you have symptoms of depression. I'm sure it's hard for your parents and siblings to understand what you're going through (or else they're in denial, which is likely ). However, I'm shocked your doctor said it's "just a phase." Shame on him/her. I urge you to see the assistance of your school counselor ASAP. In this day and age, there is absolutely no reason for you to be ignored and/or go untreated. Therapy and the proper medication can work wonders. Just be patient - finding the right medication and dosage can take time. All the best to you!

    January 12, 2011 at 00:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Sarah in Texas

    My depression also surfaced during my teens and only continued into adulthood due to lack of treatment. Adults are too quick to dismiss teen depression as a "funk" or a "phase." Thank you for shining a light on this problem.

    January 12, 2011 at 09:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. sealchan

    I went through a period of mild depression where I felt down all the time but without many of the symptoms described. This was probably the kind one could just wait out. Now my wife and daughter have the kind that needs medication so I have seen how this plays out...the problem is, I suspect, that the initial depression is often triggered by a particular event and so it may seem like it is not something you should treat with medication because of that. Seek counseling and a psychiatrist so that you can get the best experience to monitor whatever medications you use. The challenge isn't over when you fill your prescription!

    January 12, 2011 at 17:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sealchan

      I believe that some research shows that many mental disorders are actually self-reinforcing brain cycles that one oftentimes gets "pushed" into if you are genetically susceptible to this. Some future treatments hope to push the brain out of the (depressive) cycling through electroshock or medications as a treatment. I say this in order to help clarify how life can "push" your brain into a disorder and it is still something you may need more than therapy for...

      January 12, 2011 at 17:34 | Report abuse |
  14. CleanLiving87

    More than 18 million Americans suffer from a depressive disorder, according to the Uplift Program, a statistics website. Rehabilitation facilities and therapy can help individuals who have depression, but nearly 80 percent do not seek treatment.
    New research suggests that technology may be working against people who are susceptible to depression as well. A study conducted by students at Ohio State University found that exposure to dim light in dark conditions can put individuals at risk for developing a depressive disorder, according to Discovery. This includes using a computer or watching television without help from a lamp. http://bit.ly/e9yFn7

    January 13, 2011 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
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    This is a very serious abused .

    March 7, 2011 at 03:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Anony Mous

    Depression is referred to in the major depressive disorder
    medical field as Major Depressive Disorder, and it isn't something you can just snap out of. It is theorized that an imbalance of brain chemicals as well as certain life events are primary causes of depression.

    May 13, 2017 at 00:15 | Report abuse | Reply
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