Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(1):239-240

See related article on depression in women.

Is depression common in women? What are the symptoms?

About 20% of women have depression at least once. If you're depressed, you may have some of these symptoms:

  • Feeling sad, having the “blues” or crying a lot

  • Losing interest or pleasure in your usual activities (including sex)

  • Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless

  • Thinking about death or suicide

  • Sleeping too much, or not being able to go to sleep or stay asleep

  • Losing your appetite and losing weight (or eating too much and gaining weight)

  • Feeling very tired or slowed down

  • Having trouble paying attention and making decisions

  • Having aches and pains that don't get better with treatment

What causes depression?

If some brain chemicals are too low, the brain's nerve cells work slower. This causes depression. Stressful life events, especially the death of a loved one, a divorce or moving (such as leaving home to go to work or to college), may also cause depression.

Women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) are more likely to get depression. It's more common a week before a period and in the weeks after giving birth.

How is depression treated?

Counseling alone may help if your depression isn't too bad. It's important to take good care of yourself, to exercise and to eat healthy foods. See the list of do's and don'ts at the end of this handout.

If you have bad depression, your doctor can prescribe a medicine called an “antidepressant.” Medicine alone or medicine with counseling can help most women who have depression.

It's OK to take birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy at the same time as depression medicines. Taking hormones may even help some depressed women get better.

If you get pregnant while you're taking a medicine for depression, tell your doctor right away. Your doctor will know if your medicine is safe to take. If you're planning to get pregnant, talk to your doctor about your medicines before you try to get pregnant.

Almost all medicines for depression would get into breast milk. Ask your doctor before you start breast feeding.

What should I do if I forget to take a dose of my antidepressant?

If three hours have passed, skip the dose. Otherwise, go ahead and take it. If you miss a dose, don't take two doses the next time.

What are the side effects of depression medicines?

If you're taking a tricyclic antidepressant, you may have dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, a “spacy” feeling, bladder problems, tiredness, sleepiness, dizziness, shaky hands, fast heartbeats or weight gain.

If you're taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, you may have nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, nervousness, sleepiness or trouble sleeping, or problems with sex (inability to have an orgasm).

If a side effect of your antidepressant bothers you, talk to your doctor about it.

How will I know if my medicine is helping my depression?

You'll sleep better. Your appetite will improve, and you will have more energy. You'll have a better feeling about the future. You'll feel less sad, and it will be easier to make decisions. Be patient—it may take about three weeks before you start to feel better.

How long will I need to take the medicine?

If this is the first time you've been depressed, you'll take the medicine for about six months. If this is the second time you've been depressed, you'll take the medicine for about a year. However, if this is the third or fourth time you've been depressed, you may need to take the medicine for years.

Where can I get more information?

  • National Foundation for Depressive Illness, Inc.

    P.O. Box 2257

    New York, NY 10116

    Telephone: 1-800-248-4344


  • National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association

    730 N. Franklin St.

    Suite 501

    Chicago, IL 60610-3526

    Telephone: 1-800-826-3632 or 1-312-642-0049


  • National Mental Health Association

    1021 Prince St.

    Alexandria, VA 22314-2971

  • Telephone: 1-800-969-NMHA (969-6642)


Some do's and don'ts when you're depressed—

  • Don't isolate yourself. Stay in touch with your loved ones and friends, and your minister or rabbi.

  • Don't make major life decisions (for example, about separation or divorce). You may not be thinking clearly right now, so your decisions may not be the best ones for you.

  • Do exercise every day to make yourself feel better and to get more energy.

  • Do eat balanced meals and healthy food, and get the right amount of sleep.

  • Don't blame yourself for your depression. You didn't cause it.

  • Don't be discouraged about not feeling well right away. Be patient with yourself.

  • Do take your medicine or go to talk therapy on a regular basis. Your medicine won't work if you only take it once in a while.

  • Do set small goals for yourself, because you may have less energy.

  • Do encourage yourself, and don't give up.

  • Do get as much information as you can about depression and its treatment.

  • Call your doctor or the local suicide crisis center right away if you start thinking about suicide.

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