Diagnosing depression

This page is about the official depression ‘labels’ or diagnoses which are used when viewing depression from a medical perspective. However, this site is for anyone affected by depressive symptoms, whether they meet the criteria for a formal diagnosis or not.

Clinical definitions of depression

A formal or medical diagnosis of depression is usually undertaken by a doctor. There is no blood test or scan you can do to test for depression – it is a diagnosis based on a checklist of symptoms and an evaluation of their persistence and severity, as well as their effect on daily functioning.

Doctors have generally used one of two internationally recognised manuals, the ‘ICD’ (International Classification of Diseases) or ‘DSM’ (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), providing clear definitions of each named ‘disorder’. Both manuals use descriptive models with agreed lists of symptoms and severity levels, and sub-categories for each disorder. Depression is classed under ‘mood or affective disorders’ (an ‘affective’ disorder means a disorder of the emotions).

Why diagnose?

The point of making a clinical diagnosis of illness is to choose the appropriate treatment. In the UK there are national guidelines for best practice in treating depression which are put together on the basis of thorough reviews of the most up-to-date research and evidence.

However, the current guidelines recognise that there are significant problems attempting to classify the depression categories and severities. Doctors need to use a wider assessment of daily functioning, and of the biological, psychological and social factors relevant to each individual when planning their treatment.

This means it is unlikely to be useful to try to precisely ‘self-diagnose’. Diagnosis of a specific mood disorder is best carried out by a suitably qualified mental health professional.

More serious forms of depression

Some more severe forms of depression can include a further range of symptoms such as:

    – ‘mania or hypomania’ (a period of over-active, excited behaviour with symptoms such as racing thoughts, distractibility and increased activity which persist and cause a problem for you or those around you)
    – ‘psychosis’ (experiences such as hearing or seeing things or holding unusual beliefs not shared by other people, sometimes described as being like a ‘waking dream’)
    – ‘paranoia’ (a sense of threat based on exaggerated fears or suspicions which are not based in fact)


These more severe forms of depression include ‘bipolar disorder’ (which used to be known as ‘manic depression’), psychotic depression, and schizoaffective personality disorder. These symptoms can also be part of other mental health disorders. Depression also often accompanies other illness, both physical and mental – for example, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or addictions.

The charity Mind offers useful online leaflets explaining each of these disorders in detail. See ‘More ideas and resources’ for the link.

General advice for dealing with depression

The information on this website does not offer specialist advice tailored for these specific forms of depression, but the strategies described should be helpful in addressing the more general depressive symptoms that they also include.

The national guidelines recognise that depressive symptoms often make a significant impact on people’s lives even when they don’t meet the criteria for any formal diagnosis of depression. A large number of people who are affected by depression never see a doctor for it or receive any kind of formal diagnosis. See the ‘Stressed, anxious, depressed?’ page to see how ordinary ups and downs can spiral into depression.

Next: Stressed, anxious, depressed?

Take Action

Depression checklist

Related

Consulting a doctor
Other mental health services
More ideas & resources