Treating Depression: What Psychiatrists and Psychologists Want You to Know

Treating depression is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

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If you’ve ever dealt with depression, you know it affects more than just your mood or energy levels. You know how the symptoms can leak into your personal relationships, professional life, and overall health. Depression is a leading cause of disability in the American workforce and can lead to an estimated 20 days of lost workdays a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Simply tolerating symptoms of depression is a mistake. There are many different treatment options, from types of medication to therapy to adjunct lifestyle changes, and it’s important to find the right combination of approaches to help you.

In a 2016 study of more than 46,000 American adults, only 29 percent of those who screened positive for a type of depression actually received treatment. Not seeking help can have devastating consequences: over half of people who die by suicide each year were experiencing major depression. “Treatment of depression is hard work and necessary,” says Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD, a psychologist in New York City. “If you want to live your best life, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Common Treatments for Depression

The ideal treatment for major depressive disorder includes a combination of both talk therapy and medication, says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a psychologist in New York City.

Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is one of the most common ways to treat depression. This is a trusting relationship between you and a mental health professional to explore problems, find alternative solutions or ways of thinking, and develop new coping strategies, according to the American Psychological Association.

Psychotherapy can be a powerful way to challenge negative thinking and develop resilience for challenges. “Depression really alters how we think,” says Dr. Hartstein. “We look at things through this very dark lens, and psychotherapy helps us challenge that.”

There are different types of psychotherapy, according to Susan Samuels, MD, a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine.

  • Psychodynamic therapy is the most classic version, in which the patient and therapist dive into issues and analyze problematic feelings and behaviors.

  • Interpersonal therapy focuses specifically on a patient’s relationships with friends, family, and peers to build more positive interpersonal skills.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy helps patients change dysfunctional or unproductive thought patterns, which may be the underlying cause of unhealthy or destructive behaviors.

While some professionals do specialize in particular methods, a blend of approaches is common. “Many therapists use pieces of all these different types of therapy in their office to address what it is that the person in front of them needs,” says Dr. Samuels. Learn more about the types of therapy here.

Medications that help treat depression include different categories of drugs such as SSRIs, SNRIs, tricyclic antidepressants, and MAOIs. These options work in different ways and affect people differently, so it may take a few tries to get the right fit. Here is more information on medication for treating depression.

And treatment for depression doesn’t just take place in a doctor’s office: Lifestyle changes are a key component to help alleviate depressive symptoms. “Thirty minutes of intense exercise multiple times a week goes head-to-head in studies with antidepressants for mild to moderate depression,” says Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine. Getting enough sleep and eating well are also contributing factors.

Treating Severe Depression

Doctors identify severe depression using the following criteria, according to Dr. Michaelis:

  • Inability to function well

  • Unable to work or hold a job

  • Unable to maintain healthy relationships

  • Not enjoying life

  • Using self-harming behaviors, including substance abuse

  • Having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide

If medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes have not been effective at treating depression, another strategy is electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. This is when a quick electrical current stimulates a part of the brain while the patient is under general anesthesia. The procedure induces a controlled seizure that can change the brain chemistry to help treat depression, according to Dr. Samuels. (Learn more here about how ECT can help with depression.)

Depression can be tricky to treat, and there may be plenty of days where you feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back, but remember that consistent treatment yields the best results. “Stick with it,” encourages Dr. Hartstein. “The more you stick with it, the more skills you learn, the better you feel, the more set for life you are.”