Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/5/2022
Nearly 10 percent of adults (ages 18 and up) in the United States will suffer from a depressive episode each year , according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
And while you’ve probably heard of depression, did you know, according to the book, Depression in Adults with a Chronic Physical Health Problem: Treatment and Management, it’s sometimes broken up into depression scales — like mild depression, moderate and severe (also referred to as major)?
Mild and major depression may seem obvious enough — but what constitutes moderate? And are there different depressive symptoms for the different severities? Let’s dive in.
Depression (also referred to as major depressive disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association) is a mental health condition that negatively affects the way you think, feel and act.
Often, mental health pros will categorize types of depression into three categories:
There are no strict depression scales or guidelines as to what constitutes mild, moderate or severe depression.
Instead, a therapist or mental health provider will assess your depressed mood and other symptoms of depression you may have and determine if you have moderate depression (or one of the others).
What determines the severity of depression (mild, moderate, or severe) is the frequency and severity of symptoms that a person experiences.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, common mental and physical symptoms of depression include:
Constant feelings of sadness, low mood, anxiety, hopelessness or pessimism
Feelings of worthlessness, irritability, guilt or helplessness
Lack of energy and/or tiredness
Loss of interest in activities you once found pleasurable
Changes in appetite and/or weight
Aches, pains or digestive issues without a clear cause
Suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm
No matter which depression symptoms you experience, the frequency and degree of the symptoms experienced is what will qualify your depression as mild, moderate, or severe.
Not all depressed patients experience every symptom. Symptoms may also fluctuate — meaning, you could notice certain ones sometimes, and others at different moments.
To be diagnosed, depressive symptoms must persist for at least two weeks.
Clinical depression symptoms, and the severity in which you feel them, also goes into classifying if you have mild, moderate or severe depression.
It’s worth noting that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not have any strict guidelines on how many symptoms a person must be dealing with in order to be deemed to have moderate depression. Instead, it is up to your healthcare provider to make that call.
If you’re not familiar with it, the American Psychiatric Association says that the DSM-5 is a manual used by mental health professionals as a tool to help define and classify mental illnesses.
Because there are no strict guidelines on how to classify moderate depression, there’s no exact definition to give here on how a clinician may diagnose it.
But it’s likely that a mental health professional will assess how deeply the depressive symptoms affect your day-to-day life and make the determination based on that.
If your depressed mood doesn’t affect your life much, you may be diagnosed with mild depression.
If they affect you on a daily basis, it could be moderate — and if you find yourself paralyzed by the symptoms, it could be severe.
To learn more about the definition of depression, you can read our guide to Is Depression a Disease?
If you suspect you may have moderate depression (or even mild depression or severe depression, really), you should contact a mental health professional.
They will be able to assess your symptoms and give you a diagnosis.
From there, they’ll work with you on treatment options. Here are some of the common ways to address depression.
One treatment option you may be offered is talk therapy — specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
According to an article published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, CBT can be an effective way to treat moderate depression in depressed patients.
If you participate in CBT as a means to treat your depression, you can expect to follow these steps:
Work with your therapy provider to identify what’s going on in your life that needs help (ie, your depression)
Set goals for what you’d like to see change
Work with your therapy provider to identify patterns and behaviors that are negatively affecting your life
Come up with ways to address and change those behaviors
Medication is another treatment option for moderate depression — specifically antidepressants.
According to an article published in the journal, Current Biology, depression is caused by low levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain (they’re what transmit information between neurons).
Examples of neurotransmitters are serotonin (which regulates mood, amongst other things) and dopamine (which may help you feel motivated).
Antidepressants boost levels of certain neurotransmitters to help with depression. But they don’t work right away — it can take four to eight weeks before you may notice a difference in symptoms, according to the NIH.
Different types of antidepressants are used in the treatment of depression — including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and more, according to Mental Health America.
Bupropion (sold under the brand name Wellbutrin®) is also a common medication prescribed by health care professionals.
It is called an atypical antidepressant because it doesn’t fall into one of the other categories. It is also used to treat seasonal affective disorder.
Before prescribing you medication for the treatment of depression, you may also be asked for a family history of depression and about other medical conditions you have. This will help a health care professional assess if a medication poses a potential risk factor.
If you want to avoid medication, a more holistic approach to treating moderate depression is to make lifestyle changes. According to an article published in the journal, BMC Psychiatry, some changes to consider making today are:
Maintaining a regular exercise schedule
Eating a healthy diet
Get enough sleep
Practice mindful meditation
Reduce consumption of alcohol/reduce the use of drugs or nicotine
Once the severity of depression is determined by an assessment of symptoms, your healthcare provider will talk to you about next steps. Chances are that means discussing treatment for depression.
Two of the more common treatments for moderate depression are therapy and medication.
If you don’t know where to find mental health help, speak to your primary care physician or schedule an online therapy appointment.