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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
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How Is Depression Diagnosed?


February 14, 2014

Depression
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How Is Depression Diagnosed?
How Is Depression Diagnosed?
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Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and give you a mental-health assessment.
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2012-03-05

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

How Is Depression Diagnosed?
 
Diagnosis means "to know." The more health-care providers know about a medical problem, the greater are the odds that they can treat it. This holds true for all medical problems, including psychiatric ones.
 

To diagnose depression, your health-care provider will probably perform the following assessments:

The mental-health interview and mental-status examination — Your health-care provider will ask you about your general health and recent health history, including details of your symptoms. The mental-status examination is a specific set of observations and questions geared toward determining your state of mind.

Physical examination — Your primary-care physician should do a physical examination as part of a comprehensive evaluation.

Diagnostic tests — Your health-care provider will occasionally order diagnostic tests (such as blood tests and X-rays) to find out if you have any medical problems causing your symptoms.

The Challenge Of Diagnosis
 

Making a diagnosis, especially a psychiatric diagnosis, is a challenging task.

When assessing depression, health-care providers must sort out the different types of mood disorders to make a useful and relevant diagnosis. Dysthymia (a moderate and persistent form of minor depression) is treated differently from bipolar disorder (an illness with periods of depression and periods of elevated mood called mania).

There are always gray areas, so a health-care provider's job is to come up with a list of probable or possible diagnoses. This list provides a framework for making treatment suggestions. Refining the diagnosis is a gradual process. As you and your health-care provider learn more about your depression, keep an open mind. Don’t give up if the first approach doesn’t work. And speak up if you’re uncomfortable. For example, if you have an drug side effect you just can't live with, tell your doctor. In many cases, your doctor will be able to suggest an alternative that will work better for you. This can be a time-consuming process, but you are likely to find a suitable treatment.

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