Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2002;66(6):1051-1052

Is depression common in women?

Yes. Women are twice as likely as men to have depression. About 20 percent of women experience depression at least once during their lifetime. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 17 million people in the United States—1 in 10 adults—have depression each year.

What are the symptoms?

Doctors continue to learn about why women are more affected by depression than men, but there are some common symptoms in men and women. If you are depressed, you have some of the symptoms listed in the box nearly every day, all day, for 2 weeks or longer.

Symptoms of Depression

  • Feeling sad or crying a lot

  • Losing interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy, 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 tired all the time or slowed down

  • Having trouble paying attention and making decisions

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

What causes depression?

Your brain has chemicals that help control your moods. When you don't have enough of these chemicals, or your brain doesn't respond to them properly, you may become depressed. Depression can be genetic (meaning it can run in families). Depression also can be linked to events in your life, such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, or losing a job. Taking certain medicines, abusing drugs or alcohol, or having other illnesses can also lead to depression. Depression isn't caused by personal weakness.

Women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) are more likely to become depressed. Depression is more common a week before a woman's period and in the weeks after a woman gives birth (this is called postpartum depression).

How is depression treated?

Depression can be treated with medicine, counseling, or both. These treatments are highly effective. Medicine may be particularly important to treat severe depression. Medicines used to treat depression are called antidepressants. They correct the chemical imbalance in your brain. Antidepressants may cause side effects when you first start to take them, but they usually go away with time. The medicine can start working right away, but you may not see the full benefit for about 6 to 8 weeks. How long you'll need to take the medicine depends on your depression. Usually it is best to take medicine for at least 6 months. Don't stop taking your medicine without checking with your doctor first.

Are antidepressants safe for any woman with depression?

If you are planning to get pregnant, talk to your doctor about your medicines before you try to get pregnant. If you get pregnant while you are taking an antidepressant, tell your doctor right away. Your doctor will know if the medicine is safe to take in pregnancy.

Almost all medicines for depression can pass into your breast milk. Talk to your doctor about your medicine and breastfeeding.

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

Dos and Don'ts When You Are Depressed

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Don't give up.

  • Do exercise every day to make yourself feel better, and eat right (follow a healthy diet) to get more energy.

  • Do get enough sleep.

  • Do take your medicine and go to counseling as often as your doctor tells you to. 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.

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

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

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Copyright © 2002 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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