What is depression and how is it treated? CNN’s medical analyst explains
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental…
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or visit the hotline’s website.
Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania is continuing to receive treatment for depression at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, after checking himself into the hospital on February 15. His office has said he has experienced depression “off and on” during his life, but that his condition “only became severe in recent weeks,” necessitating inpatient care.
Fetterman’s disclosure, widely praised by mental health advocates, has prompted many people to ask questions about the often misunderstood illness: What is depression and what are the symptoms? What are its risk factors? How can one distinguish clinical depression from feeling sad? How common is major depressive disorder? What treatments are available and when is hospitalization needed? And how can someone who needs help find assistance?
To guide us through these questions, I spoke with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also chair of the advisory board for Behavioral Health Group, a network of outpatient opioid treatment and recovery centers around the United States. Previously, she served as Baltimore’s health commissioner and chaired the board of Behavioral Health System Baltimore, a nonprofit organization that oversaw mental health services in the city.
CNN: What is depression, and what are its symptoms?
Dr. Leana Wen: Major depressive disorder, colloquially referred to as depression or clinical depression, is a common illness. It is a serious mental health condition characterized by a persistently low or depressed mood and a loss of interest in activities that previously brought a person joy. Other symptoms include a lack of energy, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, an inability to concentrate, appetite changes, sleep disturbances or suicidal thoughts. These symptoms often affect someone’s ability to function at work, at home, and in social interactions.
CNN: How can one distinguish clinical depression from feeling sad? How is a diagnosis made?
Wen: It’s very common to feel down from time to time; many people experience periods of sadness, especially when facing challenging life situations. But this is different from major depressive disorder, for which there are specific diagnostic criteria including depressed mood or lack of interest in normal activities causing social or occupational impairment, and other specified symptoms such as problems with sleep, eating, concentration, energy or self-worth. These symptoms must persist for at least two weeks for a diagnosis of major depressive disorder to be made.
Screening for major depressive disorder generally begins with a physical examination by a health care provider. Often, laboratory tests are done to rule out other ailments, such as hypothyroidism and vitamin deficiency. There are questionnaires that can help screen for depression and aid your physician or other provider with the diagnosis.
CNN: How common is major depressive disorder?
Wen: An estimated 21 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive disorder episode lasting at least two weeks in 2020, according to the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This is about 8.4% of all US adults. The prevalence is higher among girls and women compared to boys and men (10.5% compared to 6.2%). The age group with the highest prevalence is young adults 18-25 years old (17%).
The lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorder is even higher; some studies estimate it affects on average 12% of people in the US, but that it could be as high as 17%. That’s 1 in every 6 people.
CNN: What are risk factors for depression?
Wen: There are several different types of risk factors. One is a recent change in life circumstances. The death of a loved one, getting a divorce, losing a home or a job and other major upheavals can increase risk. Other behavioral health conditions, such as anxiety and substance use disorders, are also associated with depression.
A recent illness can increase the risk of major depressive disorder, too. Serious chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis and dementia are associated with higher rates of depression.
There is a link, too, between stroke and depression; about a third of people who have had a stroke suffer some depressive symptoms.
Senator Fetterman suffered a stroke in May 2022, during his Senate campaign. That could have increased his risk for a depressive episode, especially as, according to his office, he has had episodes of depression in the past.
CNN: What treatments are available, and when is hospitalization needed?
Wen: It’s very important to note that effective treatments are available for major depressive disorder. Initial treatment includes anti-depressant medications and psychotherapy. Sometimes, lifestyle modifications and social supports can also help.
Most patients can be managed effectively with outpatient treatment, meaning that they do not need to be hospitalized. But there are circumstances under which someone may need inpatient treatment in the hospital. A patient could have worsening symptoms and may be suicidal, for instance. They could also have several other medical conditions and may need medication adjustments that are best provided in a hospital setting.
(These refer generally to patients who require hospitalization for major depressive disorder, and not specifically to Senator Fetterman, for whom such detailed medical information is not known and should not be presumed.)
Other individuals can be treated well on an outpatient basis and still from time to time, require inpatient care. This is not dissimilar to how we manage other medical conditions. Patients with diabetes, for example, may be doing well with oral medication then need to switch to insulin. Sometimes, they may have complications that require hospitalization. I think it’s important for us to think about major depressive disorder and other mental health conditions the same as we would physical health conditions.
CNN: How can someone who needs help find assistance?
Wen: For those with a trusted health care provider, a good place to start is to speak with that person. Your physician or other provider can help with the initial assessment, often can make the diagnosis and either begin treatment or refer to someone else who can.
If your primary care provider is delayed in making a referral to a mental health specialist or treating you themselves, you should follow up and emphasize the importance of getting care. Many workplaces and universities offer resources, and there are online telehealth services that could provide some care while you are pursuing referrals through your physician. Local and state health departments often provide some treatment options as well.
In addition, the federal government last year launched the 988 hotline that provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people experiencing emotional distress. The 988 hotline is a network of local and regional hotlines that can refer people and help them get information about where to seek treatment in their area. People can — and should — call or text this number if they are experiencing a mental health crisis.