We all have the blues from time to time, but if you have depression, this feeling is stronger, it affects your thinking and behaviour, and lasts from weeks to months. However, no matter how low you feel, there is hope. There are people who can help you and things you can do to get on the road to recovery.
Depression is very common and can affect anyone, at any age – from childhood through to old age. It’s not a sign of any kind of weakness or fault in you.
About 1 in 6 people experience depression at some time in their life. It affects women more than men, but men seem less likely to recognise the problem and seek help.
Key symptoms include constantly feeling down or hopeless, loss of enjoyment or interest in doing the things you used to enjoy doing, negative thinking and sleep problems. You may even feel so bad that you have thoughts of self-harm or even suicide.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and the support and treatment you need will depend on how severe your symptoms are.
Depression can usually be treated with a combination of psychological therapies, lifestyle changes and antidepressant medication.
If you’re depressed, it’s important to get help – the sooner you do, the sooner you'll start to feel better. Remember: there is hope. Many people have come out the other side of depression and have gone on to enjoy happy, healthy lives.
What are the symptoms of depression?
Depression is a change in mood, behaviour and feelings that can be mild, moderate or severe. Symptoms include:
frequently feeling sad and tearful
not wanting to socialise anymore
being unable to enjoy activities that once were fun
poor appetite or overeating
physical symptoms such as pain (eg, headache, back pain)
tiredness and too much or too little sleep
difficulty concentrating and making decisions
difficulty getting much done.
If your depression is more severe, you may also have thoughts of self-harm or suicide. If you have these thoughts, you should get help urgently from your doctor or one of the helplines listed on this page. There are people who can help you get through. Read more about severe depression.
What causes depression?
Sometimes depression appears out of the blue, while at other times something seems to trigger it. The exact cause of depression is unknown but many factors may play a role in depression. For example, you are more likely to experience depression if you:
have someone in your family who has been depressed, such as a parent or sibling
experienced trauma or abuse at an early age
have certain chronic physical health conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s diseaseor coeliac disease, or have had a stroke or have low thyroid hormone
are going through major life changes or have recently suffered a loss, such as a relationship break-up, redundancy, or a significant injury or accident
are or have just been pregnant
are an older adult
use alcohol or recreational drugs
are taking certain medicines, such as for blood pressure or hormonal medication.
How is depression diagnosed?
If you are unsure whether you have depression, there are online self-tests you can do, including:
If you have some, but not necessarily all, the symptoms mentioned above, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. They will ask you questions about your thoughts, feelings and behaviour, including sleeping and eating patterns, as well as how long you have been feeling this way. They will also ask if you have had any previous episodes of depression and may ask about what is happening in your life at the moment. They may also do a physical examination and blood tests to rule out other causes for your depression.
Your doctor will be assessing not only if you have depression, but what type of depression and whether you have mild, moderate or severe symptoms, as this will affect what treatment they recommend.
What are the different types of depression?
There are several types of depression. You can still be depressed even if you don't meet all the criteria for one of these types. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) divides depression into the following categories:
Major depressive disorder – depression symptoms that interfere with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat and enjoy life. These may be mild, moderate or severe.
Persistent depressive disorder– a depressed mood that lasts for at least 2 years.
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder – a severe form of premenstrual syndrome experienced by some women before their periods.
Other depressive disorders (not meeting major depressive disorder criteria due to substance abuse, medication side effects, medical conditions, or other specified or unspecified reasons).
Other conditions also include symptoms of depression, including the following:
Bipolar disorder–different from depression, but includes episodes of extreme low moods well as extreme high moods (mania).
Major depressive disorder
For a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, you will have experienced five or more of the following symptoms during the same 2-week period and this is a change from your previous functioning. At least one of your symptoms is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure:
depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as self-reported or observed by others
diminished interest or pleasure in all or almost all activities most of the day, nearly every day
significant weight loss when not dieting, weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day
insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day
fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day
diminished ability to think or concentrate nearly every day
recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan.
In addition, these symptoms:
cause functional impairment (e.g., social, occupational)
are not better explained by substance abuse, medication side effects or other psychiatric or somatic medical conditions.
There are 3 degrees of severity of major depression defined in the DSM-5:
Mild depression:Few, if any, symptoms in excess of the 5 required to make the diagnosis, and symptoms result in only minor functional impairment.
Moderate depression: Symptoms or functional impairment are between mild and severe.
Severe depression: Most symptoms, and the symptoms markedly interfere with functioning. Can occur with or without psychotic symptoms.
Persistent depressive disorder
For this diagnosis, you meet the above criteria for a major depressive disorder, or you have 3 or 4 of the following dysthymic symptoms including depressed mood, for 2 years or more. Your impairment compared with major depressive disorder may be less severe. Dysthymic symptoms are as follows:
How is depression treated?
Depression can usually be effectively treated with a combination of psychological therapy, lifestyle changes and antidepressant medication. For some people, alternative approaches have been useful, such as mindfulness meditation, St John's wort and online tools and courses. Find out more about treatment for depression.
What self-care can I do if I’m depressed?
Small steps are the key to change – choose what feels manageable and build from there.
Making your own self-care matter builds your resilience so you can cope better with the challenges of life.
Looking after your physical health helps your mental wellbeing.
Having ways to reduce and manage stress increases your resilience.
Getting help when you need it is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Staying connected to family, whānau and friends can help you feel better.
Spending time in nature is key to your wellbeing.
Finding a purpose increases your sense of meaning and belonging.
Psychological therapy from a trained professional can help you recover and can reduce the chances of future bouts of depression. If you have depression, especially if it is severe, it’s a good idea to have some form of face-to-face psychological (talking) therapy. Counselling or psychotherapy can help you with your thinking patterns and anxiety, problem-solving skills and self-esteem, among other things. A number of psychotherapy approaches have been found to be helpful with depression, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). You can ask your GP to recommend someone or find a counsellor yourself.
Looking after your physical health is an important way to improve your mental health. Improvements to four aspects of your daily life can greatly reduce your depression: sleep, exercise, diet and the use of alcohol or other recreational drugs.
Insomnia is closely associated with many mental illnesses, both as a symptom and a potential trigger. It co-occurs most commonly in major depression with around 80% of people diagnosed with depression experiencing insomnia.
Good sleep can improve your mood and also give you more resources for coping with life’s challenges. Find out about why sleep is important and check out these sleep tips or sleep apps. You could also try SHUTi, an evidence-based CBT programme for insomnia that has been shown to reduce depression (Note: there is a fee). If you are still having problems with your sleep, talk to your doctor about it.
People who are inactive are up to twice as likely to have depressive symptoms than active people. Even one hour of exercise a week has been found to prevent depression.
What we put into our bodies effects not only our physical health but also our mental wellbeing. A direct link has been found between diet and depression. Find out about healthy eating basics to make sure your diet is providing you with the nutrients to help keep depression at bay.
Alcohol and other recreational drugs
It’s important to avoid using alcohol and other drugs as these can often make depression worse. You may feel like they give you a lift in mood, but the overall effect is to make things worse. Read more about alcohol and mental health.
Antidepressants are generally reserved for people with moderate to severe depression, where psychological therapy and lifestyle changes have not been enough for the depression to go away. They work best when used together with psychological therapy and lifestyle changes.
Antidepressants are not routinely used for people with mild depression because psychological therapy and lifestyle changes usually work well for mild symptoms. However, if your doctor recommends antidepressants, they will review with you regularly as to how well they are working, whether your dose needs adjusting or you need a different medication, and to work out when you are ready to start coming off them.
There are various classes of antidepressants. The most commonly used antidepressants for first-time treatment are selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (or SSRIs), such as citalopram, escitalopram, sertraline and fluoxetine. These work best when used together with psychological therapy and lifestyle changes. Most people will start noticing an improvement within 2 or 3 weeks but it will take 6 months or longer to get the full benefit. If you have troublesome side effects or little improvement in your symptoms after 6 weeks, talk to your doctor about changing the dose or trying a different antidepressant (switching).
It's normal to use antidepressants for up to a year, or longer if you have had depression before. Antidepressants are not addictive but coming off antidepressants should be done slowly, supervised by your doctor, to avoid withdrawal side effects. You should also talk to your doctor if you become pregnant or plan to become pregnant.
Also, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any other medicines or supplements – some have interactions with antidepressants that increase the risk of psychological and physical problems, even ones bought over the counter at a pharmacy and some herbal medicines.
Certain complementary therapies may enhance your life and help you to maintain wellbeing. In general, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, yoga, exercise, relaxation, massage, mirimiri and aromatherapy have all been shown to have some effect in alleviating mental distress.
Mindfulness, the practice of being aware of each moment of your day as it happens, has been shown to be effective for some people with depression.You can learn how to do this from online courses such as Breathe or look for a group to go to in your area.
St John’s wort
Research has found that St John's wort is useful in the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression, but not effective in severe depression. The mechanism of action of St John’s wort is not fully understood but it is believed to affect certain chemicals in the body such as serotonin and noradrenaline, and, in this way, is thought to improve mood.
Many of the chemicals in St John's wort interact with medicines used to treat depression and other illnesses. It is important to let your doctor or pharmacist know if you want to try St John's wort so that they can check if it might interfere with other medicines you are taking.
Online tools and courses
For mild-to-moderate depression, online programmes can be useful and effective. Here are some well-researched programmes worth looking at:
The Journal – a free personalised online programme to help you to stay positive, create lifestyle changes, and learn steps for problem solving.
Beating the Blues – an evidence-based online CBT tool for treating depression. Your doctor can provide access to this programme.
SPARX – a free online tool to help young people learn to deal with depression and anxiety.
myCompass– an Australian interactive self-help service that aims to promote resilience and wellbeing for mild to moderate stress, anxiety and depression
MoodGYMand e-couch– cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) based programmes from the Australian National University to help you identify and overcome problem emotions and develop good coping skills.
Aunty Dee – free online tool to help you work through problems.
Back from the bluez – an online course with strategies to help you manage your mood. Centre for Clinical Interventions, Australia, 2016
Depression course – an evidence-based online course for if you have had more than one episode of depression (Note: this course has a fee). This Way Up, Australia
It's understandable that when you're depressed low energy, loss of pleasure and increased anxiety get in the way of doing the things you used to enjoy. However, taking small steps back to those things can help you to live well with depression – and may even be the start of the way out of it too.
Note: Some of these resources are from overseas so some details may be different. In New Zealand, ring 111 for emergencies, or freephone or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor about your depression.
Concerns have been raised about the potential for antidepressants, particularly SSRIs, to cause suicidal thoughts and behaviour especially in adolescents and young adults. These concerns have prompted regulatory authorities in many countries to issue warnings. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2015, Vol. 49(12) 1-185.
A consensus statement by the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) (Möller et al., 2008) concluded that in the absence of randomised controlled trial evidence, the risk is difficult to assess but that the available data indicated that there was a small risk of SSRIs inducing suicidal thoughts in patients up to the age of 25. The WPA advised that this risk needed to be balanced against the known benefits of treating depression and in preventing suicide. Clinicians should therefore advise young patients and their families of the small chance of suicidal thoughts emerging during the early phase of treatment with SSRIs and monitor all patients for the emergence or worsening of suicidal thoughts during the first 2–4weeks of treatment. The activation/agitation observed with the initial stages of taking an SSRI can be managed with a low dose of a benzodiazepine prescribed for a limited period of time. Clinical practice guidelines for mood disorders Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, 2015
Systematic review 2018
A systematic review and network meta-analysis published in 2018 compared the efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs for the acute treatment of adults with major depressive disorder.
"We identified 28 552 citations and of these included 522 trials comprising 116 477 participants.
In terms of efficacy, all antidepressants were more effective than placebo, with ORs ranging between 2·13 (95% credible interval [CrI] 1·89-2·41) for amitriptyline and 1·37 (1·16-1·63) for reboxetine.
For acceptability, only agomelatine (OR 0·84, 95% CrI 0·72-0·97) and fluoxetine (0·88, 0·80-0·96) were associated with fewer dropouts than placebo, whereas clomipramine was worse than placebo (1·30, 1·01-1·68).
When all trials were considered, differences in ORs between antidepressants ranged from 1·15 to 1·55 for efficacy and from 0·64 to 0·83 for acceptability, with wide CrIs on most of the comparative analyses.
In head-to-head studies, agomelatine, amitriptyline, escitalopram, mirtazapine, paroxetine, venlafaxine, and vortioxetine were more effective than other antidepressants (range of ORs 1·19-1·96), whereas fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, reboxetine, and trazodone were the least efficacious drugs (0·51-0·84).
For acceptability, agomelatine, citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine, sertraline, and vortioxetine were more tolerable than other antidepressants (range of ORs 0·43-0·77), whereas amitriptyline, clomipramine, duloxetine, fluvoxamine, reboxetine, trazodone, and venlafaxine had the highest dropout rates (1·30-2·32).
Risk of bias: 46 (9%) of 522 trials were rated as high risk of bias, 380 (73%) trials as moderate, and 96 (18%) as low; and the certainty of evidence was moderate to very low."
"All antidepressants were more efficacious than placebo in adults with major depressive disorder. Smaller differences between active drugs were found when placebo-controlled trials were included in the analysis, whereas there was more variability in efficacy and acceptability in head-to-head trials. These results should serve evidence-based practice and inform patients, physicians, guideline developers, and policymakers on the relative merits of the different antidepressants."  Lancet, 2018
Seminar series of 7 video updates about "non-drug therapies for common mental health conditions in primary care: depression, anxiety and distress. With the aim being to encourage practitioners to talk first, get patients being physically and socially active, and see how they do. With prescribing coming later, if and when needed" – from 13th April 2017.
The evidence base for the first depression consultation in primary care - Professor Bruce Arroll
Cipriani, A. Furukawa, A. Salanti, G. et al. Comparative efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs for the acute treatment of adults with major depressive disorder: a systematic review and network meta-analysis Lancet. 2018 Feb 20.pii: S0140-6736(17)32802-7 [Full article]
There are a variety of mobile phone apps for anxiety, stress, depression and general mental health. They can help you learn about your condition, figure out whether your medication is working, record details about your symptoms and some provide tools to help you manage mental health problems. The Health Navigator team has reviewed some mental health and wellbeing apps that you may like to consider.
Online self-help programmes & courses
Here are some online resources that are designed to help people manage depression and anxiety. Some are free, some have a cost, and some require prescription from your doctor.