Young girl experiencing a depressive episode sitting down and looking at her phone

How Long Does a Depressive Episode Last?

7 min.

Depressive episodes can be a challenging period of time for those struggling with depression-oriented mental health disorders. But how long do they last? Learn more here.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

March 31, 2023

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Table of Contents

Depression is a mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It is characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities that the individual previously enjoyed. A major depressive episode is a particularly severe manifestation of depression that significantly impairs an individual’s ability to function.

What is a depressive episode?

A major depressive episode is a specific type of depressive episode that is characterized by a combination of symptoms that occur almost every day for at least two weeks. These symptoms include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most activities
  • Significant changes in appetite or weight
  • Sleep disturbances, either sleeping too much or too little
  • Restlessness or slowed down
  • Loss of energy or fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal thoughts

These symptoms must be severe enough to cause significant distress or impairment in the individual’s daily functioning. In addition, the symptoms cannot be attributed to the use of drugs, medication, or a medical condition.

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How long can a depressive episode last?

The duration of a depressive episode can vary significantly from person to person. Some people may experience a single episode that lasts only a few weeks, while others may experience multiple episodes over several years.

To be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, an individual must experience a depressive episode for at least two weeks. This is the minimum duration required for the diagnosis of major depressive disorder.

Recovery from a major depressive episode is a gradual process that can take a significant amount of time. The length of recovery varies depending on the individual and the severity of the episode. Some people recover quickly, while others may take months or even years. It is important to remember that depression is a treatable illness, and recovery is possible with proper treatment and support.

Factors that can impact the length of recovery include the duration and severity of the episode, the number and effectiveness of available treatments, and the individual’s circumstances, such as their level of support from family and friends and the availability of mental health resources in their community.

It is important to note that recovery from depression is not always linear, and individuals may experience setbacks or periods of relapse during their recovery. This can be frustrating, but it is normal and does not mean it is not working. In fact, relapse is a common part of the recovery process, and individuals can learn to recognize the warning signs of relapse and take steps to prevent it.

Can you have depressive episodes without having depression?

Depressive episodes can occur in people who do not meet the criteria for major depressive disorder. For example, a person may experience a depressive episode as part of bipolar disorder, which is characterized by cycles of manic episodes and depressive episodes. Depressive episodes can also occur as part of other mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or borderline personality disorder

What causes a major depressive episode?

The exact cause of a major depressive episode is not fully understood, and there are likely several contributing factors. Depression is a complex condition that can be influenced by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.

Genetic factors

Depression tends to run in families, suggesting that genetic factors may play a role in its development. Studies have shown that individuals with a family history of depression are likelier to experience a major depressive episode than those without.

Biological factors

Biological changes in brain structure have been observed in people with depression, though the exact significance of these changes is yet to be determined. These changes may eventually lead to a better understanding of the causes of depression.

Environmental factors

A major life event, such as the death of a loved one, a break-up, financial problems, job loss, or a serious illness, can trigger a major depressive episode in some individuals. Trauma – such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse – can also play a role in the development of depression. Other environmental factors that may contribute to depression include stress, lack of social support, and substance abuse.

Psychological factors

We all respond to stress and life events differently, and our ways of thinking and coping may influence how likely we are to develop depression. Negative thinking styles, such as catastrophic thinking (e.g., assuming the worst in any situation) and self-blame, have been associated with depression. People with low self-esteem and poor coping skills may also be at higher risk.

It’s important to note that there is no single cause of depression, and different people may have different experiences that contribute to their development of depression. A combination of these factors may contribute to a major depressive episode. It’s also worth noting that experiencing one or more of these factors does not necessarily mean that an individual will develop depression, but it does increase the risk. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, it is essential to seek professional help.

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Risk factors for depressive episodes

Family history

A family history of depression, bipolar disorder, or other mood disorders can increase an individual’s risk of having a major depressive episode.

Personal history of mental disorders

Individuals who have previously experienced a major depressive episode or other mental health condition, such as anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may be at higher risk for future episodes.

Chronic medical conditions

Certain chronic illnesses, such as chronic pain, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and neurological disorders, have been associated with an increased risk for chronic depression.

Substance use

Substance use disorder and addiction are risk factors for depression. Alcohol, cannabis, and certain medications like benzodiazepines can worsen depression symptoms.

Lack of social support

People with poor social support or are experiencing significant life stressors such as trauma or major life changes, like a divorce, a job loss, or financial problems, may be at higher risk for major depressive episodes.

Certain medications

Some medications, such as certain blood pressure medications, corticosteroids, and isotretinoin (often used to treat severe acne), can increase the risk of depression.

It’s worth noting that these risk factors don’t necessarily mean an individual will experience a major depressive episode, but they can increase the likelihood. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, it is important to seek professional help. A mental health professional can evaluate symptoms, provide a diagnosis if necessary, and develop a tailored depression treatment plan to help manage symptoms and reduce the risk of future episodes.

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Diagnosis of a depressive episode

Diagnosing a depressive episode involves evaluating an individual’s symptoms to determine if they meet specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). A mental health professional can conduct a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation to evaluate symptoms and determine an accurate diagnosis. If a depressive episode is diagnosed, a personalized treatment plan can be developed to manage symptoms and improve overall well-being.

How do you treat a depressive episode?

Several treatments can help a depressive episode, and the most effective approach may vary depending on the individual’s specific symptoms and needs. Some of the most common treatments for clinical depression include:

Psychotherapy

Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy involves working with a mental health professional to identify and address negative thoughts, behaviors, and patterns that may be contributing to depression.

Medication

Antidepressant medications can help regulate chemicals in the brain that affect mood and improve symptoms of depression. Antidepressants can be used alone or in combination with other treatments like therapy.

Lifestyle changes

Adopting healthy habits, including lifestyle factors such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress levels, can also be beneficial in managing depressive symptoms.

Alternative treatments

Some people find that complementary therapies like meditation, yoga, and acupuncture can help alleviate symptoms of depression.

It’s important to note that there is no single “cure” for depression. The most effective treatment option may involve a combination of the above approaches tailored to the individual’s specific needs. Seeking professional help from a qualified mental health professional is critical when deciding on a treatment plan. A mental health professional can provide an accurate diagnosis, discuss available treatment options, and support recovery.

Treating depressive episodes at Charlie Health

Seeking treatment and making lifestyle changes can be effective in managing depression symptoms and potentially reducing the length of a depressive episode. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, it is crucial to seek professional help to get the support and care you need.

Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) integrates personalized facilitated groups, individual therapy, and family therapy to address the underlying triggers for depression and anxiety comprehensively. It doesn’t happen all at once, but small changes lead to big improvements, and that’s what Charlie Health is here to do – to help you make those changes and support you along the way. Together our skilled therapists help you find a way to improve your quality of life. 

Effective care is available at home to support healing and growth. Our Admissions Team is available now, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to discuss your needs. Contact us today.

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