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About depression

What is depression?

Depression is a mental illness that makes a person feel sad or unable to enjoy anything for weeks at a time.

They can also have other symptoms, such as having no energy, being irritable, or having problems with sleep. In severe cases, someone might even think about suicide.

Depression can stop people being able to do their job, study, or look after themselves and their family.

It can be a short-term illness, or it can come and go throughout a person’s life.

With the right treatment, someone with depression can recover and live a full, satisfying life.

Types of depression

Major depression
Persistent depressive disorder
Premenstrual depression
Prenatal and postnatal depression
Atypical depression
Seasonal patterns of depression
Other terms

What causes depression?

There is not one single cause of depression. It can be caused by different things in different people.

Depression tends to run in families. Genes are a big part of the reason someone gets depression. Usually there are also other reasons, such as:

  • stress and life problems
  • traumatic life events
  • grief and loss
  • loneliness
  • not sleeping well
  • health problems
  • smoking
  • lack of physical activity
  • unhealthy eating
  • using alcohol or other drugs
  • medications.

Not everyone who is miserable and stressed by things in their lives has depression – but these feelings can lead to depression.

Symptoms of depression

Depression can cause any of these symptoms:

  • feeling sad or down
  • not being able to enjoy things that are normally enjoyable
  • often thinking about death or suicide
  • eating too much or not enough
  • gaining or losing weight
  • sleeping more than usual, or not being able to sleep properly
  • having no energy or getting tired easily
  • not being able to concentrate or think clearly
  • feeling bad about yourself, worthless or guilty
  • physical movement that is either slowed down or sped up
  • irritability.

Everyone can feel down sometimes, but if the symptoms last for more than a few weeks, it could be depression.

Someone might feel this way all the time, or the symptoms might come and go.

Depression can interfere with thinking. In older people it can even seem like they have dementia.

Depression can also have other unusual symptoms, such as hearing or seeing things that are not real (hallucinations), having very strange beliefs that are abnormal or not true (delusions), extreme weakness, or being unable to move parts of the body. These symptoms are rare.

Who gets depression?

Anyone can get depression.

It is very common. On average more than 1 in 5 people will have depression sometime in their life.

Most people are over 20 years old when they have depression for the first time.

Children and teenagers can also get depression.

Women are about twice as likely as men to get depression.

People with other mental health problems such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia can also have depression. Depression is a part of bipolar disorder.

Getting help for depression

Early medical care is vital to a good recovery. The sooner you get help, the more chance you have of getting the correct diagnosis and getting effective treatment and help to manage your problems.

Where to get help – Australia

  • Your GP – a GP can provide treatment for depression, or refer you to a public mental health service or a private psychiatrist, psychologist or private hospital clinic.
  • headspace – Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation.
  • Your local mental health service – Assessment and treatment at public mental health centres is free.

Where to get help – New Zealand

  • Your GP – a GP can provide treatment for depression, or refer you to a public mental health service or a private psychiatrist, psychologist or private hospital clinic.
  • Your District Health Board.

More about first steps for getting help

How is depression diagnosed?

Depression is diagnosed based on a person’s symptoms.

The diagnosis is usually made by a GP or a psychologist. If symptoms are unusual or severe, the person may be referred by a GP to a psychiatrist to make a diagnosis.

The doctor may not make a diagnosis right away. Sometimes they might want to see how the person goes over time, before making a diagnosis.

How is depression treated?

The treatment that's right for you will depend on how bad your depression is, your symptoms, what is happening in your life, your preferences, and your personality.

Mild depression is usually treated with psychological treatments (talking therapies). Medication is not normally needed.

Moderate depression can be treated with psychological treatments or medication.

Most people with more severe depression will need a combination of antidepressant medication and psychological treatment.

More about treatment of depression

Recovery from depression

Depression is a treatable illness. With treatment, most people can recover from a period of depression within 3–6 months.

Some people take longer to recover. In some cases of severe depression it might take several years.


  • Depression is a mental illness that makes a person feel sad or unable to enjoy anything for weeks at a time.
  • Depression is very common.
  • Get help for depression by seeing your GP or psychologist. If your symptoms are unusual or severe, you may be referred to a psychiatrist for help.
  • With treatment, most people recover from depression within months.
Page last reviewed Apr 2017 | C1035V1

This is a general guide only, and does not replace individual medical advice. Please speak to your doctor for advice about your situation. The RANZCP is not liable for any consequences arising from relying on this information. Subject matter experts, people with lived experience of mental illness and carers all contributed to this fact sheet.