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  • Writer's pictureJesse Thornton

What is Depression?

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Major Depressive Disorder (Depression) is a mental illness based on a set of symptoms in the DSM.  Medically, depression is a result of a chemical imbalance, which causes depressed symptoms.  Also, psychologists separate depression by categories depending on which symptoms are present.  This article reviews these aspects of depression:

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) Major Depressive Disorder:

The title of the book is a lot to take in because it is a technical manual that provides guidelines to classify disorders.  In a nutshell, the DSM-V states that a person can be diagnosed if they have five (5) or more of the following symptoms for at least two (2) weeks: 1) depressed mood, 2) markedly diminished interest or pleasure, 3) significant weight loss or gain (5% change), 4) insomnia or hypersomnia, 5) restlessness or feeling slowed, 6) fatigue, 7) feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, 8) diminished ability to concentrate, and 9) recurrent thoughts of death.  These symptoms impair daily functioning and are not due to substance abuse, a medical condition or other mental illness.

Strengths: this provides a stable way to diagnose and research depression, which helps legitimize the condition as a medical illness.

Weaknesses: categories do not talk about etiology, which makes it difficult to understand the cause of the illness.


Biologically, depression is the result of chemical imbalances in the brain.  Specifically, three neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine become imbalanced and cause symptoms.  Therefore, medications that influence these chemicals help treat the illness.

Strengths: we can visibly see the problems in a person and can develop medications to improve the chemical imbalance, which accounts for biological predispositions (genetics).

Weaknesses: because the brain is plastic, or changeable, this still does not account for the etiology, or source, of how the brain developed an imbalance.  Changing the brain can, and does, change the chemical balance.

Personality of depression:

Many clinical psychologists believe that early and present experiences lead to diagnosis and the chemical imbalances.  These psychologists identify two different types of depression:

Empty depression: People who were neglected early in life or somehow struggled to develop social skills may become isolated.  Prolonged lack of social interaction and lack of ability to connect is what leads to symptoms and the chemical imbalance for these folks.  Thus, treatment focuses on improving relationships and experiences.
Critical depression: Harsh and critical experiences over a long period of time can lead to excessive self-criticism and perfectionism.  Thus, people have low self-worth, never feel good enough, and often call themselves names.   This results in a chemical imbalance.  Treatment focuses on developing a more positive self-view and reducing self-criticism.

Strengths: this give us sub-types of depression and provides an etiology.  Therefore, it offers more ways for treatment.

Weaknesses: it does not account for biology and is difficult to medically treat.

Every one of these models is important to help our understanding and treatment of the illness.  For more on treatment for depression click here.  Finally, if you feel you may suffer from depression, talk with a counselor to learn about the proper form of treatment to meet your needs.

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