Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/29/2022
Unipolar depression isn’t a term we hear often. And while your internet-minded brain may call up a picture of a hopeless unicorn staring into a great, rainbow-free abyss, the reality is both less splendid and less exciting.
Whether you’ve recently been diagnosed with unipolar depression and are wondering what the hell is going on or have stumbled across the term while searching for depression resources, you might be part of the majority of people who have no idea what unipolar depression is.
The good news is that unipolar depression isn’t more rare or concerning than other types of depression. That’s because, well, it’s essentially just depression (though there are several types).
Confused? Let us break it down for you.
To understand what unipolar depression is, it’s best to first explain what it’s not: bipolar depression.Bipolar depression, also known as bipolar affective disorder and formerly manic-depressive disorder, is a condition in which a person’s moods swing wildly from highs (a manic episode) to lows (an episode of depression).
You may know someone that fits this description: one moment, they’re energetic, euphoric and unstoppably driven, and the next, they’re bottoming out with despair. In between these episodes, you might notice abrupt changes in their demeanor, like being excessively friendly and inconsiderate of boundaries one day, then avoidant and agitated the next.
Unipolar depression, then, is really just half of bipolar disorder: the down part without any manic symptoms. We have a more detailed guide on the differences between unipolar depression and bipolar depression.
Unipolar depression (also called clinical depression, severe depression and major depression, but inclusive of seasonal affective disorders and mild depression) doesn’t have one specific cause.
Lots of things can increase your risk of depression. Risk factors can include genetic, biological or environmental.
Midlife crises, serious illnesses and major life changes like moving across the country or getting divorced can all potentially trigger severe depression, as can a family history of depression or other psychiatric disorders.
People are at an increased risk of depression if they’re diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease or serious heart conditions. These are seen as potential complications to a laundry list of medical illnesses.
Though you have many things to point to if you want to place blame, none of them are in your own direction.
You can’t become depressed simply because you did something wrong or because you’re a bad person or because you’re unworthy of love — those thoughts are actually the depression itself talking, not reality.
Instead, your risk of depression increases when your upbringing, genetics, work-life balance, relationships or overall health suffer for one reason or another.
You’re in the middle of a current episode of depression. Things aren’t clear in your head, and you’re experiencing brain fog. Is this single episode your first, or have you had previous episodes you may not have been aware of?
Depressed patients deal with a lot as a result of their episodes of depression, from memory loss and suicidal ideation to weight gain, weight loss, cognitive impairment and irritable moods.
A person with unipolar depression will experience a variety of mental and physical symptoms that can affect their physical health, hobbies, relationships, sleep and outlook on the world.
Here are a few examples of depressive symptoms tied to a depressed mood, according to the National Institute of Mental Health:
Losing interest in hobbies and recreational activities
Persistent sadness or emptiness
Pessimism or hopelessness
Feelings of guilt
Fatigue, oversleeping, or insomnia
Changes in appetite
Changes in weight
Thoughts of suicide and/or suicidal attempts
While all of these depressive symptoms are general attributes of mental illness, the biggest danger is when suicide becomes part of your thinking. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or are considering harming yourself, talk to a mental health professional now. Those thoughts aren’t true, and they’re not you — they’re just the depression creating more problems.
The good news is that suicidal ideation and other depression symptoms can be managed — with some patience. While it may take time for individual patients to work out an optimal treatment plan for depression symptoms, help is accessible, available, and effective when done right.
Let’s look at how.
There’s no single “best treatment” for depressive disorder, unfortunately. Instead, there are a handful of proven-effective, safe options and tools you and a healthcare provider can choose from in your journey to overcome depression.
Medication is a popular and well-tested method of dealing with depression. There are many antidepressant drugs out there, but these days, the first line of defense is a section of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs.
SSRIs manage levels of serotonin, a powerful neurotransmitter your brain uses to balance your mood. In depressed patients, serotonin supplies can sometimes zero out.
SSRIs work to keep a supply on hand so that the next time you’re having a sad day, there’s a sort of chemical safety net to catch you.
Another often employed initial treatment for depression is therapy. While you may have heard of interpersonal psychotherapy, the go-to today is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Cognitive behavioral therapy helps depressed patients learn to recognize unhealthy thoughts (like the sad, worthless, hopeless ones you might experience during a depressive episode) and realize that they aren’t entirely based on reality. Over time, CBT helps you learn to reject these ideas rather than spiral when they appear.
There are countless lifestyle changes that might improve your mental health as well. Reducing stress, getting better sleep, and eating well are beneficial to your physical and emotional well-being.
Even exercise, which is known to be good for your physical health, can benefit people dealing with depressive disorder.
Finding the best option (or options) for your needs, however, requires a critical step first — getting expert support.
Adverse events happen, and they can affect our mental health — this is a normal part of life. But when these setbacks become a trend or when minor depression isn’t so minor, it might be time to seek treatment of depression.
Whether you’ve just had your first depressive episode or you’re already pursuing antidepressant treatment, you’re on the right path.
With depressive disorders and other mental disorders, doing nothing is often the worst thing you can do. Symptoms of depression won’t go away without effective treatments — unipolar disorder or otherwise.
If you think you have depression of any kind, are facing depressive symptoms or are experiencing a depressive episode, we encourage you to reach out to a healthcare professional for psychological treatments. It could be a call, text, email or even matching with a mental health professional on our online therapy platform.
In any case, it’s up to you to take the first step. Depressive disorders don't get better without help, and for many people, they may get worse when left untreated.
Ready to get the support you need? Talk to someone — like a healthcare professional at Hers.
And if you’d like to learn more about depression first, we can help with that too. Our mental health resources are available 24/7.