Bipolar Disorder Symptoms Depression An Overview of Melancholic Depression By Marcia Purse Marcia Purse Marcia Purse is a mental health writer and bipolar disorder advocate who brings strong research skills and personal experiences to her writing. Learn about our editorial process Updated on April 29, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Daniel B. Block, MD Medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD LinkedIn Twitter Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Eric Audras / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Symptoms Causes Diagnosis Treatment Coping Melancholic depression is a form of major depressive disorder (MDD) that is characterized by a profound presentation of severe depression. With this form of depression, there is a complete loss of pleasure in all or almost everything. In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), melancholia is a specifier for MDD—so a person would be diagnosed as having major depressive disorder (the broader illness) with melancholic features (the specific symptoms). While melancholic depression is no longer considered a separate, distinct diagnosis, some researchers suggest that it should be considered a distinct syndrome in order to improve treatments and outcomes. The term "melancholia" is one of the oldest terms used in psychology. It has been around since Hippocrates introduced it in the fifth century B.C., and it means "black bile" in Greek. The translation is fitting because Hippocrates believed that an excess of black bile (one bodily fluid out of the "Four Humours," as he called them) caused melancholia. The symptoms Hippocrates categorized under melancholia are nearly identical to the symptoms we use today for melancholic depression, including fear, not wanting to eat, insomnia, restlessness, agitation, and sadness. The History of Depression Symptoms Symptoms of melancholic depression include: A distinct quality of depressed mood characterized by profound despondency, despair, or emptiness Depression that is consistently worse in the morning Early morning waking (at least two hours earlier than normal) Psychomotor disturbances of either retardation, which is the slowing of normal movement, or agitation, which is increased and/or irregular movement Anorexia or weight loss Excessive or inappropriate guilt Causes The start of these episodes is usually not caused by a specific event. Even when something good happens, the individual's mood does not improve—not even for a short time. Older people, inpatients, and those who exhibit psychotic features are at greater risk for melancholic depression. The exact causes of depression are not clear, but genetics, family history, past trauma, brain chemistry, and hormones may all play a role. Melancholic depression, however, is believed to have strong biological origins. One neuroimaging study found that a key "signature" marker was only seen in participants with melancholic depression but was not observed in those with non-melancholic depression or in those without depression. What Is the Chemistry Behind Depression? Diagnosis A doctor will start with an evaluation to assess the nature, severity, and duration of your symptoms. Some of the questions they may ask include: Has your daily routine changed? Do you still enjoy the things you used to like doing? Do you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning? How do you sleep? Are your symptoms worse in the morning? Is it difficult for you to concentrate? Is there anything that helps improve your mood? A doctor will also evaluate your physical health and may perform some tests or blood work to check that your symptoms are not related to some type of underlying medical condition. In order to be diagnosed with melancholic depression, an individual must exhibit symptoms of major depressive disorder such as: Feelings of persistent sadness Loss of interest and pleasure Low energy or fatigue Irritability Appetite changes Sleep difficulties Changes in activity levels Difficulty concentrating Thoughts of dying or suicide To be diagnosed with melancholic features, you must have at least three of these symptoms: Depression that is different from grief Weight loss or loss of appetite Slowed activity or restlessness Excessive guilt Waking much earlier than normal More severe depressive symptoms in the morning A doctor will also rule out other conditions including: Bipolar disorder Cyclothymic disorder Persistent depressive disorder Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) Depression caused by illicit drugs, prescribed medications, or certain physical illnesses If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database. What to Expect When Seeing a Doctor for Depression Treatment For melancholic depression, medication is often part of the treatment plan because it is believed to have a biological root. In other words, since it is usually not triggered by outside circumstances, causes of melancholic depression appear to be mainly due to genetic makeup and brain function, necessitating a medication that works on biological causes like brain function. Types of antidepressants that may be used for melancholic depression include: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): These medications work by changing the way the neurotransmitter serotonin works in the brain, thereby improving mood. Common types include Prozac (fluoxetine), Paxil (paroxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), and Lexapro (escitalopram). Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): SNRIs affect the way both serotonin and norepinephrine work in the brain. Common kinds are Cymbalta (duloxetine) and Effexor (venlafaxine). Norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs): Wellbutrin (bupropion) is the only medication in this class that affects norepinephrine and dopamine. Atypical antidepressants: These medications affect brain chemicals that seem to improve mood. Examples of medicines in this category are Remeron (mirtazapine), Oleptro (trazodone), Trintellix (vortioxetine), and Viibryd (vilazodone). Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs): These are first-generation antidepressants and may have more side effects than newer versions. This class includes Tofranil (imipramine), Pamelor (nortriptyline), and amitriptyline. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): This is another older class of antidepressants that can have serious side effects but may be a good option for certain people. The main medications in this class are Parnate (tranylcypromine), Nardil (phenelzine), and Marplan (isocarboxazid). Research suggests that melancholic depression responds better to tricyclic antidepressants than to SSRIs, psychotherapy, or social interventions. Major Depressive Disorder Treatment Effects Coping Because melancholic depression is characterized by such profound feelings of sadness, loss of pleasure, and lack of interest in daily activities, it can create major disruptions in how a person is able to function in many areas of life. If you suspect that you have melancholic symptoms, you should talk to a doctor. Antidepressants are the first line of treatment for this condition and can be very effective. There are, however, some things that you can do to help manage your symptoms and complement medication-based treatments. Lifestyle modifications that may help improve your mood include: Getting regular exercise Spending time with friends and loved ones Eating a healthy diet Meditation Following a consistent sleep schedule It is important to remember, however, that the symptoms of melancholic depression can make all of these things very difficult. Once your medications begin to take effect, you may find it easier to start incorporating these changes into your daily routine. Online resources and support groups may also be helpful for managing your symptoms of melancholic depression. Talk to a doctor to decide if this is a good option to complement your other treatments. Best Online Depression Resources A Word From Verywell Melancholic depression can have a serious impact on your work, school, social, and home life. Fortunately, there are effective treatments that can help. If you have symptoms of depression, talk to a doctor who can rule out other causes and recommend treatment options that can help you regain balance. 6 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Parker G, Fink M, Shorter E, et al. Issues for DSM-5: Whither Melancholia? The Case for its Classification as a Distinct Mood Disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2010;167(7):745-747. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101525 Sadeghfard A, Bozorgi AR, Ahmadi S, Shojaei M. The history of melancholia disease. Iran J Med Sci. 2016;41(3 Suppl):S75. Monzón S, Gili M, Vives M, et al. Melancholic versus non-melancholic depression: differences on cognitive function. A longitudinal study protocol. BMC Psychiatry. 2010;10:48. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-10-48 Hyett MP, Parker GB, Guo CC, et al. Scene unseen: Disrupted neuronal adaptation in melancholia during emotional film viewing. Neuroimage Clin. 2015;9:660-667. doi:10.1016/j.nicl.2015.10.011 Parker G, Fink M, Shorter E, et al. Issues for DSM-5: Whither melancholia? The case for its classification as a distinct mood disorder. AJP. 2010;167(7):745-747. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101525 Searle A, Calnan M, Lewis G, Campbell J, Taylor A, Turner K. Patients' views of physical activity as treatment for depression: a qualitative study. Br J Gen Pract. 2011;61(585):149-156. doi:10.3399/bjgp11X567054 Additional Reading Telles-Correia D, Marques JG. Melancholia before the twentieth century: fear and sorrow or partial insanity? Front Psychol. 2015;6:81. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00081 Dewhurst WG. "Melancholia and Depression: From Hippocratic Times to Modern Times." Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. 1992;17(2). By Marcia Purse Marcia Purse is a mental health writer and bipolar disorder advocate who brings strong research skills and personal experiences to her writing. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist Online Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.