What to Expect When Seeing a Doctor for Depression

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In the United States, over 7% of adults and children (over the age of 12) experience depression within any two-week period. In fact, depression is one of the most common chronic health conditions listed by doctors on their patients' medical records.

While depression is common, if you think you have it, you may be unsure about where to begin. Here are the steps to getting your mental health treated, so you can feel well.

See Your Primary Care Doctor

If you suspect you may have depression, your first visit should be to your family doctor or primary care physician for a thorough checkup. While most doctors do screen for depression, it's best to tell your doctor your concerns about your mood. Your doctor is there to help you, so don't hold back.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask

  • How long have you been feeling sad or down?
  • Are you sleeping more than usual or having difficulty sleeping? 
  • How is your appetite? Have you lost weight or gained weight?
  • How is your energy level?
  • Are you having trouble concentrating or making decisions?
  • Do you think of death or have thoughts of suicide? 

Your answers to these questions (and others) will help your doctor pinpoint whether or not you have major depressive disorder, often referred to simply as depression. Before confirming a diagnosis, however, your doctor will need to rule out other health problems.

Symptoms of several medical conditions can mimic those of depression. This is especially true in older adults with new-onset depression. These conditions include:

  • Vitamin deficiencies (for example, vitamin B12 deficiency)
  • Anemia
  • Low blood sugar
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Calcium or other electrolyte abnormalities
  • Kidney or liver problems

While blood tests cannot be used to diagnose depression, they can rule out some of these above conditions. Less commonly, your doctor may order an imaging test, like a brain MRI. This can rule out structural brain diseases, like stroke, especially if the doctor notices evidence of cognitive problems or neurological signs upon physical examination.

Some medications may also cause symptoms of depression as a side effect. Be sure to tell your doctor all of the medications you are taking, including both prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Lastly, note that sometimes other mental health conditions can be difficult to tease apart from depression. For instance, bipolar disorder may be misdiagnosed initially as depression.

Often this misdiagnosis occurs because symptoms of mania may be overlooked, as depressive symptoms are the ones that feel so bad and first prompt the doctor visit. Substance use, either intoxication or withdrawal, can also cause symptoms that overlap with depression. Try to remain patient as your doctor sorts through your symptoms.

See a Mental Health Professional

If your doctor diagnoses you with depression, you may then be referred to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist will further evaluate your mood and determine whether or not medication is needed. 

Some people will do fine being treated by their primary care physician. Others may benefit from seeing a psychiatrist, especially if symptoms are not improving with the first trial of an antidepressant or the depression is severe from the start.

Research suggests that the combination of medication and therapy is most effective for treating depression. If you would benefit from psychotherapy, your psychiatrist may handle this as well, although some elect to refer patients to another mental health professional, like a psychologist.

Treatment

It's important to note the treatment of depression is not as simple as receiving a prescription for an antidepressant. The individual causes of depression are diverse and poorly understood. The medications used to treat it are just as diverse, so matching a drug with an individual is not a clear-cut process.

When your doctor chooses your antidepressant, they will consider many factors to try to make this match. These include your specific symptoms, any co-existing illnesses you have, your tolerance of side effects, and any medications you have previously tried.

Treatment can take some time. While many people begin to feel better within one to two weeks, it can take six to twelve weeks to feel the full effect of your medication.

Be sure to communicate regularly with your doctor, especially if you are experiencing bothersome side effects. If you are noticing very little or no improvement in your symptoms after two to four weeks, your doctor may increase your dose, add another medication to increase its effect, or switch your medication.

Depression Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide to help you ask the right questions at your next doctor's appointment.

Mind Doc Guide

A Word From Verywell

The most important thing to remember about seeking treatment for your depression symptoms is simply to speak up and ask. Depression is not a sign of weakness or laziness. It's a sign that something is out of balance. With proper treatment, which usually entails the two-pronged approach of medication and psychotherapy, you can feel well again.

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression. Updated February 21, 2020.

  2. Maurer DM. Screening for depression. Am Fam Physician. 2012;85(2):139-44.

  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression. Updated February 2018.

  4. National Institute of Mental Health. Mental health medications. Updated October 2016.