What is depression?

Depression is a common mental health problem that affects around one in five older people. It might include a low mood, feeling hopeless or losing enjoyment for things. However, depression also has many other symptoms you might not expect.

How you might feel

It can be hard to tell if you have depression because how it feels and what it looks like can vary from person to person. You might experience a range of thoughts and feelings. For example, you might:

  • stop enjoying the things that you used to enjoy
  • find it hard to concentrate
  • feel helpless or hopeless
  • become irritable around other people, or avoid them
  • feel sad or have a low mood that doesn’t lift
  • have problems with your memory.

Older people with depression can experience more physical symptoms. This might mean you:

  • start sleeping much more or less than usual
  • feel tired or more restless than normal
  • eat a lot more or less than usual
  • feel faint or dizzy.

Visit the NHS website for more information about the symptoms of depression.

If you think your friend or relative might have depression, our page If you’re worried about someone’s mental health has more advice on what you can do to help.

What might cause depression

It’s easy to blame yourself if you’re feeling low but remember that depression is not your fault. Any difficult setback or life change can affect our mental health, and make us more vulnerable to becoming depressed. Your feelings of depression may be set off by bereavement or loss, feeling lonely or isolated, a period of ill health, or even by certain medications. Sometimes, you may find there’s no clear reason for feeling depressed.

Depression and dementia

Depression shares some symptoms with dementia, such as memory problems or difficulty concentrating. You may worry that you have dementia when you’re actually experiencing depression. It may also make it harder to diagnose depression if you already have dementia. If you’re worried about either condition, speak to your GP or visit the Alzheimer’s Society for more information on depression and dementia.

Getting help for depression

Often, periods of low mood won’t last long. But there are times when you might want to get some extra support. Depression isn’t something you have to go through alone and it’s worth considering support if:

  • you have negative feelings that are getting worse or last more than two weeks
  • symptoms are interfering with your daily life
  • your family and friends are worried
  • you’ve had thoughts of self-harm
  • you’ve thought that life isn’t worth living
  • a practical problem that might have caused your depression has been solved, but you still feel down.

If you feel you can't go on

If you start feeling suicidal or thinking that you want to harm yourself, get help immediately. Contact your GP or NHS 111, or call Samaritans for 24-hour confidential support.

Where to get help

Talking about how you feel might be nerve-wracking, but getting the right support is a positive step towards feeling better. You could:

  • talk to your doctor
  • tell someone you trust, for example, a friend or relative
  • call an emotional support helpline, such as The Silver Line or Samaritans
  • call a mental health helpline, such as Rethink or Mind.

Talking to your doctor

If you’re struggling to cope, speak to your GP. They will be able to assess your situation and talk about treatment options with you. They might suggest:

  • talking therapies, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy
  • medication, including antidepressants
  • self-help resources and activities, such as support groups and books
  • a combination of these things.

Write down everything you want to say to the GP before the appointment and check it off during the appointment to make sure you’ve covered everything. Our medical appointment planner can help you start. If you're nervous, you could ask a friend or relative to be with you for support.

Treatments for depression

There are lots of treatments available to help with depression. They can be very effective, even if you’ve been feeling low for a long time.

Talking therapies

Talking therapies are effective treatments for depression. They usually involve working with a trained therapist who can help you find ways to manage the difficulties you’re having. There are lots of different types, including:

  • counselling
  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • guided self-help
  • interpersonal therapy.

NHS psychological therapies (IAPT) services are open to all adults and offered one-to-one, in a group, over the phone or online. Your GP can refer you or you can refer yourself.

Read the NHS website for more about talking therapies.

Private therapy

You might consider private therapy if:

  • waiting times for NHS therapy are very long
  • you've finished a short course of NHS therapy but want more support
  • you want more choice.

The cost of private therapy can vary a lot, so it’s worth looking around if you’re thinking about this option.

You can ask your GP or search the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) online directory to find a therapist. Make sure your therapist is accredited by a professional body, such as the BACP.

Self-help groups and activities

Your GP may suggest self-help resources or activities that you can do in your own time to help with managing depression. They might suggest:

You can also join a self-help group, which are run by a number of organisations, including Mind and Carers UK. Ask your GP or find support groups in your area on the NHS website. They may be running online rather than face-to-face during the coronavirus pandemic.

Medication

Your GP might offer you medication, such as anti-depressants, to help treat depression. You should be told about how long you may need to take them for and possible side effects. It’s important to check that any new medication will work well with anything you’re already taking.

Make sure you follow your GP’s advice for any medication you’ve been prescribed. If you want to come off them or take a lower dose, talk to your GP first, even if you’re feeling better. Some anti-depressants can cause withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking them too quickly.

Ways to help yourself

There are lots of ways you can help yourself, whether or not you’re getting other treatment for depression. For general ways to look after your mental health, see our page Looking after your mental health.

You could also try to:

  • stay in touch with others – even though you may feel like you want to avoid others, feeling lonely can add to depression. It might feel like an effort to at first, but keeping in touch with other people can help you feel more positive and put things in perspective
  • look after your physical health – how you feel physically can affect your mental health, so make sure you’re getting enough sleep and eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg
  • keep active – moving your body regularly can help boost your mood but you might not feel like exercising if you’re depressed. Remember, it’s okay to start small – a short walk in the park or simple chair exercises, for example – and gradually do more as you start feeling better
  • do something you enjoy – you might not be in the mood at first, but doing things you enjoy, such as watching your favourite film or pursuing a hobby, can help lift your spirits
  • take things slowly – it can be hard to make decisions when you’re feeling depressed. So, if you can, try to avoid making big changes, such as moving house, until you’re feeling more like yourself.

Finding the right combination of treatments and starting to feel better might take time. So try to be kind with yourself on both the good and bad days.

Next steps

Book an appointment with your GP, or consider referring yourself for NHS psychological therapies.

Try the NHS mood self-assessment tool.

Read more about treatments for depression on Mind or Every Mind Matters.

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