Health Centers > Mental Health Center > Mental Disorders > Mood disorders > Major Depressive Episode
The essential feature of a Major Depressive Episode is a period of at least 2 weeks during which there is either depressed mood or the loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities. In children and adolescents, the mood may be irritable rather than sad. The individual must also experience at least four additional symptoms drawn from a list that includes changes in appetite or weight, sleep, and psychomotor activity; decreased energy; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions; or recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation, plans, or attempts.
Major Depressive Episode
To count toward a Major Depressive Episode, a symptom must either be newly present or must have clearly worsened compared with the person's preepisode status. The symptoms must persist for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least 2 consecutive weeks. The episode must be accompanied by clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. For some individuals with milder episodes, functioning may appear to be normal but requires markedly increased effort.
The mood in a Major Depressive Episode is often described by the person as depressed, sad, hopeless, discouraged, or "down in the dumps" (Criterion A1). In some cases, sadness may be denied at first, but may subsequently be elicited by interview (e.g., by pointing out that the individual looks as if he or she is about to cry). In some individuals who complain of feeling "blah," having no feelings, or feeling anxious, the presence of a depressed mood can be inferred from the person's facial expression and demeanor. Some individuals emphasize somatic complaints (e.g., bodily aches and pains) rather than reporting feelings of sadness.
Many individuals report or exhibit increased irritability (e.g., persistent anger, a tendency to respond to events with angry outbursts or blaming others, or an exaggerated sense of frustration over minor matters). In children and adolescents, an irritable or cranky mood may develop rather than a sad or dejected mood. This presentation should be differentiated from a "spoiled child" pattern of irritability when frustrated.
Loss of interest or pleasure is nearly always present, at least to some degree. Individuals may report feeling less interested in hobbies, "not caring anymore," or not feeling any enjoyment in activities that were previously considered pleasurable (Criterion A2). Family members often notice social withdrawal or neglect of pleasurable avocations (e.g., a formerly avid golfer no longer plays, a child who used to enjoy soccer finds excuses not to practice). In some individuals, there is a significant reduction from previous levels of sexual interest or desire.
Appetite is usually reduced, and many individuals feel that they have to force themselves to eat. Other individuals, particularly those encountered in ambulatory settings, may have increased appetite and may crave specific foods (e.g., sweets or other carbohydrates). When appetite changes are severe (in either direction), there may be a significant loss or gain in weight, or, in children, a failure to make expected weight gains may be noted (Criterion A3).
A common and serious mental disorder characterized by loss of contact with reality (psychosis), hallucinations (false perceptions), delusions (false beliefs), abnormal thinking
The most common sleep disturbance associated with a Major Depressive Episode is insomnia (Criterion A4). Individuals typically have middle insomnia (i.e., waking up during the night and having difficulty returning to sleep) or terminal insomnia (i.e., waking too early and being unable to return to sleep). Initial insomnia (i.e., difficulty falling asleep) may also occur. Less frequently, individuals present with oversleeping (hypersomnia) in the form of prolonged sleep episodes at night or increased daytime sleep. Sometimes the reason that the individual seeks treatment is for the disturbed sleep.
- Mood Episodes
- - Major Depressive Episode
- - Manic Episode
- - Mixed Episode
- - Hypomanic Episode
- Depressive Disorders (Unipolar disorders)
- - Major Depressive Disorder
- - Dysthymic Disorder
- Bipolar disorders
- Bipolar II Disorder
- Cyclothymic Disorder
- Mood disorders with known etiology
- Mood disorders (for professionals)
Psychomotor changes include agitation (e.g., the inability to sit still, pacing, hand-wringing; or pulling or rubbing of the skin, clothing, or other objects) or retardation (e.g., slowed speech, thinking, and body movements; increased pauses before answering; speech that is decreased in volume, inflection, amount, or variety of content, or muteness) (Criterion A5). The psychomotor agitation or retardation must be severe enough to be observable by others and not represent merely subjective feelings.
Decreased energy, tiredness, and fatigue are common (Criterion A6). A person may report sustained fatigue without physical exertion. Even the smallest tasks seem to require substantial effort. The efficiency with which tasks are accomplished may be reduced. For example, an individual may complain that washing and dressing in the morning are exhausting and take twice as long as usual.
The sense of worthlessness or guilt associated with a Major Depressive Episode may include unrealistic negative evaluations of one's worth or guilty preoccupations or ruminations over minor past failings (Criterion A7). Such individuals often misinterpret neutral or trivial day-to-day events as evidence of personal defects and have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for untoward events. For example, a realtor may become preoccupied with self-blame for failing to make sales even when the market has collapsed generally and other realtors are equally unable to make sales. The sense of worthlessness or guilt may be of delusional proportions (e.g., an individual who is convinced that he or she is personally responsible for world poverty). Blaming oneself for being sick and for failing to meet occupational or interpersonal responsibilities as a result of the depression is very common and, unless delusional, is not considered sufficient to meet this criterion.
Many individuals report impaired ability to think, concentrate, or make decisions (Criterion A8). They may appear easily distracted or complain of memory difficulties. Those in intellectually demanding academic or occupational pursuits are often unable to function adequately even when they have mild concentration problems (e.g., a computer programmer who can no longer perform complicated but previously manageable tasks). In children, a precipitous drop in grades may reflect poor concentration. In elderly individuals with a Major Depressive Episode, memory difficulties may be the chief complaint and may be mistaken for early signs of a dementia ("pseudodementia"). When the Major Depressive Episode is successfully treated, the memory problems often fully abate. However, in some individuals, particularly elderly persons, a Major Depressive Episode may sometimes be the initial presentation of an irreversible dementia.
Frequently there may be thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts (Criterion A9). These thoughts range from a belief that others would be better off if the person were dead, to transient but recurrent thoughts of committing suicide, to actual specific plans of how to commit suicide. The frequency, intensity, and lethality of these thoughts can be quite variable. Less severely suicidal individuals may report transient (1- to 2-minute), recurrent (once or twice a week) thoughts. More severely suicidal individuals may have acquired materials (e.g., a rope or a gun) to be used in the suicide attempt and may have established a location and time when they will be isolated from others so that they can accomplish the suicide. Although these behaviors are associated statistically with suicide attempts and may be helpful in identifying a high-risk group, many studies have shown that it is not possible to predict accurately whether or when a particular individual with depression will attempt suicide. Motivations for suicide may include a desire to give up in the face of perceived insurmountable obstacles or an intense wish to end an excruciatingly painful emotional state that is perceived by the person to be without end.
A diagnosis of a Major Depressive Episode is not made if the symptoms meet criteria for a Mixed Episode (Criterion B). A Mixed Episode is characterized by the symptoms of both a Manic Episode and a Major Depressive Episode occurring nearly every day for at least a 1-week period.
The degree of impairment associated with a Major Depressive Episode varies, but even in mild cases, there must be either clinically significant distress or some interference in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (Criterion C). If impairment is severe, the person may lose the ability to function socially or occupationally. In extreme cases, the person may be unable to perform minimal self-care (e.g., feeding or clothing self) or to maintain minimal personal hygiene.
A careful interview is essential to elicit symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode. Reporting may be compromised by difficulties in concentrating, impaired memory, or a tendency to deny, discount, or explain away symptoms. Information from additional informants can be especially helpful in clarifying the course of current or prior Major Depressive Episodes and in assessing whether there have been any Manic or Hypomanic Episodes. Because Major Depressive Episodes can begin gradually, a review of clinical information that focuses on the worst part of the current episode may be most likely to detect the presence of symptoms. The evaluation of the symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode is especially difficult when they occur in an individual who also has a general medical condition (e.g., cancer, stroke, myocardial infarction, diabetes). Some of the criterion items of a Major Depressive Episode are identical to the characteristic signs and symptoms of general medical conditions (e.g., weight loss with untreated diabetes, fatigue with cancer). Such symptoms should count toward a Major Depressive Episode except when they are clearly and fully accounted for by a general medical condition. For example, weight loss in a person with ulcerative colitis who has many bowel movements and little food intake should not be counted toward a Major Depressive Episode. On the other hand, when sadness, guilt, insomnia, or weight loss are present in a person with a recent myocardial infarction, each symptom would count toward a Major Depressive Episode because these are not clearly and fully accounted for by the physiological effects of a myocardial infarction. Similarly, when symptoms are clearly due to mood-incongruent delusions or hallucinations (e.g., a 30-pound weight loss related to not eating because of a delusion that one's food is being poisoned), these symptoms do not count toward a Major Depressive Episode.
By definition, a Major Depressive Episode is not due to the direct physiological effects of a drug of abuse (e.g., in the context of Alcohol Intoxication or Cocaine Withdrawal), to the side effects of medications or treatments (e.g., steroids), or to toxin exposure. Similarly, the episode is not due to the direct physiological effects of a general medical condition (e.g., hypothyroidism) (Criterion D). Moreover, if the symptoms begin within 2 months of the loss of a loved one and do not persist beyond these 2 months, they are generally considered to result from Bereavement, unless they are associated with marked functional impairment or include morbid preoccupation with worthlessness, suicidal ideation, psychotic symptoms, or psychomotor retardation (Criterion E).
Associated Features and Disorders
Associated descriptive features and mental disorders. Individuals with a Major Depressive Episode frequently present with tearfulness, irritability, brooding, obsessive rumination, anxiety, phobias, excessive worry over physical health, and complaints of pain (e.g., headaches or joint, abdominal, or other pains). During a Major Depressive Episode, some individuals have Panic Attacks that occur in a pattern that meets criteria for Panic Disorder. In children, separation anxiety may occur. Some individuals note difficulty in intimate relationships, less satisfying social interactions, or difficulties in sexual functioning (e.g., anorgasmia in women or erectile dysfunction in men). There may be marital problems (e.g., divorce), occupational problems (e.g., loss of job), academic problems (e.g., truancy, school failure), Alcohol or Other Substance Abuse, or increased utilization of medical services. The most serious consequence of a Major Depressive Episode is attempted or completed suicide. Suicide risk is especially high for individuals with psychotic features, a history of previous suicide attempts, a family history of completed suicides, or concurrent substance use. There may also be an increased rate of premature death from general medical conditions. Major Depressive Episodes often follow psychosocial stressors (e.g., the death of a loved one, marital separation, divorce). Childbirth may precipitate a Major Depressive Episode, in which case the specifier With Postpartum Onset is noted.
Associated laboratory findings. No laboratory findings that are diagnostic of a Major Depressive Episode have been identified. However, a variety of laboratory findings have been noted to be abnormal more often in groups of individuals with Major Depressive Episodes compared with control subjects. It appears that the same laboratory abnormalities are associated with a Major Depressive Episode regardless of whether the episode is part of a Major Depressive, Bipolar I, or Bipolar II Disorder. Most laboratory abnormalities are state dependent (i.e., affected by the presence or absence of depressive symptoms), but some findings may precede the onset of the episode or persist after its remission. Laboratory tests are more likely to be abnormal in episodes with melancholic or psychotic features and in more severely depressed individuals.
Sleep EEG abnormalities may be evident in 40%-60% of outpatients and in up to 90% of inpatients with a Major Depressive Episode. The most frequently associated polysomnographic findings include 1) sleep continuity disturbances, such as prolonged sleep latency, increased intermittent wakefulness, and early morning awakening; 2) reduced non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stages 3 and 4 sleep (slow-wave sleep), with a shift in slow-wave activity away from the first NREM period; 3) decreased rapid eye movement (REM) latency (i.e., shortened duration of the first NREM period); 4) increased phasic REM activity (i.e., the number of actual eye movements during REM); and 5) increased duration of REM sleep early in the night. There is evidence that these sleep abnormalities may persist after clinical remission or precede the onset of the initial Major Depressive Episode among those at high risk for a Mood Disorder (e.g., first-degree family members of individuals with Major Depressive Disorder).
The pathophysiology of a Major Depressive Episode may involve a dysregulation of a number of neurotransmitter systems, including the serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid systems. There is also evidence of alterations of several neuropeptides, including corticotropin-releasing hormone. In some depressed individuals, hormonal disturbances have been observed, including elevated glucocorticoid secretion (e.g., elevated urinary free cortisol levels or dexamethasone nonsuppression of plasma cortisol) and blunted growth hormone, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and prolactin responses to various challenge tests. Functional brain imaging studies document alterations in cerebral blood flow and metabolism in some individuals, including increased blood flow in limbic and paralimbic regions and decreased blood flow in the lateral prefrontal cortex. Depression beginning in late life is associated with alterations in brain structure, including periventricular vascular changes. None of these changes are present in all individuals in a Major Depressive Episode, however, nor is any particular disturbance specific to depression.
Specific Culture, Age, and Gender Features
Culture can influence the experience and communication of symptoms of depression. Underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis can be reduced by being alert to ethnic and cultural specificity in the presenting complaints of a Major Depressive Episode. For example, in some cultures, depression may be experienced largely in somatic terms, rather than with sadness or guilt. Complaints of "nerves" and headaches (in Latino and Mediterranean cultures), of weakness, tiredness, or "imbalance" (in Chinese and Asian cultures), of problems of the "heart" (in Middle Eastern cultures), or of being "heartbroken" (among Hopi) may express the depressive experience. Such presentations combine features of the Depressive, Anxiety, and Somatoform Disorders. Cultures also may differ in judgments about the seriousness of experiencing or expressing dysphoria (e.g., irritability may provoke greater concern than sadness or withdrawal). Culturally distinctive experiences (e.g., fear of being hexed or bewitched, feelings of "heat in the head" or crawling sensations of worms or ants, or vivid feelings of being visited by those who have died) must be distinguished from actual hallucinations or delusions that may be part of a Major Depressive Episode, With Psychotic Features. It is also imperative that the clinician not routinely dismiss a symptom merely because it is viewed as the "norm" for a culture.
The core symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode are the same for children and adolescents, although there are data that suggest that the prominence of characteristic symptoms may change with age. Certain symptoms such as somatic complaints, irritability, and social withdrawal are particularly common in children, whereas psychomotor retardation, hypersomnia, and delusions are less common in prepuberty than in adolescence and adulthood. In prepubertal children, Major Depressive Episodes occur more frequently in conjunction with other mental disorders (especially Disruptive Behavior Disorders, Attention-Deficit Disorders, and Anxiety Disorders) than in isolation. In adolescents, Major Depressive Episodes are frequently associated with Disruptive Behavior Disorders, Attention-Deficit Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Substance-Related Disorders, and Eating Disorders. In elderly adults, cognitive symptoms (e.g., disorientation, memory loss, and distractibility) may be particularly prominent.
Women are at significantly greater risk than men to develop Major Depressive Episodes at some point during their lives, with the greatest differences found in studies conducted in the United States and Europe. This increased differential risk emerges during adolescence and may coincide with the onset of puberty. Thereafter, a significant proportion of women report a worsening of the symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode several days before the onset of menses. Studies indicate that depressive episodes occur twice as frequently in women as in men. See the corresponding sections of the texts for Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar I Disorder, and Bipolar II Disorder for specific information on gender.
Symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode usually develop over days to weeks. A prodromal period that may include anxiety symptoms and mild depressive symptoms may last for weeks to months before the onset of a full Major Depressive Episode. The duration of a Major Depressive Episode is also variable. An untreated episode typically lasts 4 months or longer, regardless of age at onset. In a majority of cases, there is complete remission of symptoms, and functioning returns to the premorbid level. In a significant proportion of cases (perhaps 20%-30%), some depressive symptoms insufficient to meet full criteria for a Major Depressive Episode may persist for months to years and may be associated with some disability or distress (in which case the specifier In Partial Remission may be noted). Partial remission following a Major Depressive Episode appears to be predictive of a similar pattern after subsequent episodes. In some individuals (5%-10%), the full criteria for a Major Depressive Episode continue to be met for 2 or more years (in which case the specifier Chronic may be noted).
A Major Depressive Episode must be distinguished from a Mood Disorder Due to a General Medical Condition. The appropriate diagnosis would be Mood Disorder Due to a General Medical Condition if the mood disturbance is judged to be the direct physiological consequence of a specific general medical condition (e.g., multiple sclerosis, stroke, hypothyroidism). This determination is based on the history, laboratory findings, or physical examination. If both a Major Depressive Episode and a general medical condition are present but it is judged that the depressive symptoms are not the direct physiological consequence of the general medical condition, then the primary Mood Disorder is recorded on Axis I (e.g., Major Depressive Disorder) and the general medical condition is recorded on Axis III (e.g., myocardial infarction). This would be the case, for example, if the Major Depressive Episode is considered to be the psychological consequence of having the general medical condition or if there is no etiological relationship between the Major Depressive Episode and the general medical condition.
A Substance-Induced Mood Disorder is distinguished from a Major Depressive Episode by the fact that a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication, or a toxin) is judged to be etiologically related to the mood disturbance. For example, depressed mood that occurs only in the context of withdrawal from cocaine would be diagnosed as Cocaine-Induced Mood Disorder, With Depressive Features, With Onset During Withdrawal.
In elderly persons, it is often difficult to determine whether cognitive symptoms (e.g., disorientation, apathy, difficulty concentrating, memory loss) are better accounted for by a dementia or by a Major Depressive Episode. A thorough medical evaluation and an evaluation of the onset of the disturbance, temporal sequencing of depressive and cognitive symptoms, course of illness, and treatment response are helpful in making this determination. The premorbid state of the individual may help to differentiate a Major Depressive Episode from a dementia. In a dementia, there is usually a premorbid history of declining cognitive function, whereas the individual with a Major Depressive Episode is much more likely to have a relatively normal premorbid state and abrupt cognitive decline associated with the depression.
Major Depressive Episodes with prominent irritable mood may be difficult to distinguish from Manic Episodes with irritable mood or from Mixed Episodes. This distinction requires a careful clinical evaluation of the presence of manic symptoms. If criteria are met for both a Manic Episode and a Major Depressive Episode (except for the 2-week duration) nearly every day for at least a 1-week period, this would constitute a Mixed Episode.
Distractibility and low frustration tolerance can occur in both Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder and a Major Depressive Episode; if the criteria are met for both, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder may be diagnosed in addition to the Mood Disorder. However, the clinician must be cautious not to overdiagnose a Major Depressive Episode in children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder whose disturbance in mood is characterized by irritability rather than by sadness or loss of interest.
A Major Depressive Episode that occurs in response to a psychosocial stressor is distinguished from Adjustment Disorder With Depressed Mood by the fact that the full criteria for a Major Depressive Episode are not met in Adjustment Disorder. After the loss of a loved one, even if depressive symptoms are of sufficient duration and number to meet criteria for a Major Depressive Episode, they should be attributed to Bereavement rather than to a Major Depressive Episode, unless they persist for more than 2 months or include marked functional impairment, morbid preoccupation with worthlessness, suicidal ideation, psychotic symptoms, or psychomotor retardation.
Finally, periods of sadness are inherent aspects of the human experience. These periods should not be diagnosed as a Major Depressive Episode unless criteria are met for severity (i.e., five out of nine symptoms), duration (i.e., most of the day, nearly every day for at least 2 weeks), and clinically significant distress or impairment. The diagnosis Depressive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified may be appropriate for presentations of depressed mood with clinically significant impairment that do not meet criteria for duration or severity.
Criteria for Major Depressive Episode
A. Five (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period and represent a change from previous functioning; at least one of the symptoms is either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure.
Note: Do not include symptoms that are clearly due to a general medical condition, or mood-incongruent delusions or hallucinations.
(1) depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful). Note: In children and adolescents, can be irritable mood.
(2) markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subjective account or observation made by others)
(3) significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day. Note: In children, consider failure to make expected weight gains.
(4) insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
(5) psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down)
(6) fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
(7) feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day (not merely self-reproach or guilt about being sick)
(8) diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day (either by subjective account or as observed by others)
(9) recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide
B. The symptoms do not meet criteria for a Mixed Episode.
C. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
D. The symptoms are not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., hypothyroidism).
E. The symptoms are not better accounted for by Bereavement, i.e., after the loss of a loved one, the symptoms persist for longer than 2 months or are characterized by marked functional impairment, morbid preoccupation with worthlessness, suicidal ideation, psychotic symptoms, or psychomotor retardation.
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- National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Any Disorder Among Children. Retrieved March 5, 2013, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1ANYDIS_CHILD.shtml
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- Prevalence numbers were calculated using NIMH percentages (cited) and 2010 Census data. Census data is available at: United States Census Bureau. (revised 2011). "USA [State & County QuickFacts]." Retrieved March 5, 2013, from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html
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