Unipolar Depression – What the Diagnosis Means

Unipolar Depression

Depression ranks as one of the most common mental illness, affecting about one in 10 Americans in any given year. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association and serves as the main professional reference book on mental health and related conditions, outlines eight distinct subtypes of this disorder. While unipolar depression isn’t a term we’re used to hearing, it’s the most common type of depression.

Introduction: Explaining Unipolar Depression and Its Impact

Unipolar depression, also known as monopolar depression or major depressive disorder, refers to a type of depression that remains consistent rather than cycling through phases. While the individual may go into and out of remission, meaning they aren’t in a depressive state all the time, they don’t experience manic highs. This contrasts with bipolar disorder, which has alternating episodes of depressive and manic states.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 21 million U.S. adults experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year. This equals about 8.3% of adults in the U.S., making it the most common form of depression and among the most diagnosed mental health disorders.

The causes of unipolar depression vary considerably from one person to another. Some people experience depression as the result of losing a loved one or going through a significant life change. For others, the causes are less clear. Left untreated, a depressive episode may last for weeks, months or even years.

The good news is that is that unipolar depression is treatable. For most people, a combination of counseling, lifestyle changes and medication can control symptoms and allow them to life a full and happy life.

Diagnosis: Characteristics and Diagnostic Criteria

While different health care providers use different tools and questionnaires to determine whether someone has unipolar depression, most focus on identifying the presence of symptoms such as:

  • Depressed mood: The classic – and most recognizable – symptom of unipolar depression is a consistently low mood. For example, an individual may feel sad all the time, or they may always feel a sense of hopelessness or despair. This may occur despite their environment or circumstances.
  • Weight or appetite changes: For some people, depression may result in episodes of binge eating, while other people may have trouble finding the motivation to eat anything. As a result, their weight may fluctuate beyond what’s normal for them.
  • Loss of enjoyment: People living with unipolar depression often feel neutral or indifferent about activities they once enjoyed.
  • Changes in sleep patterns: It’s common for those living with unipolar depression to see changes in their normal sleep patterns. For some, this means they experience insomnia and nights of tossing and turning. On the other hand, an individual with this disorder may sleep too much, going to bed early and then sleeping in late.
  • Brain fog: People experiencing unipolar depression often have difficulty concentrating on tasks or thinking clearly. This may cause problems at work or school or make it difficult to participate in activities they once enjoyed that require focus, such as reading a book.
  • Fatigue: Those with unipolar depression often report constant physical or mental fatigue, leaving them feeling drained all the time. This may impact their motivation and ability to complete certain tasks, maintain relationships and consistently attend work or school.
  • Suicidal thoughts or ideations: According to one study, unipolar depression plays a role in about 87% of completed suicides. This condition may also cause thoughts of suicides or plans on how an individual may take their own life.

These diagnostic criteria come from the DSM-5. Generally speaking, an individual must consistently display at least five symptoms for at least two weeks for a health care provider to diagnose them with unipolar depression.

Treatment: Therapeutic Approaches and Coping Strategies

While unipolar depression can be debilitating, it’s highly treatable, even in severe cases. In most instances, mental health care professionals treat this condition with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.


Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, helps people living with unipolar depression by teaching them to reframe challenging circumstances, establish new habits and routines, and confront negative thoughts. Therapists use several approaches, including cognitive behavioral, dialectical behavioral, eclectic and psychoanalytical therapy. Traditionally, clients schedule in-person visits with their therapists on a weekly or biweekly basis. However, the rise of telehealth technology makes it easy to connect with a therapist from anywhere with an internet connection.


Alongside talk therapy, antidepressant medications provide an effective way to address unipolar depression. These medications change how the brain produces or uses the chemicals responsible for managing mood levels and stress. In most cases, it takes the body a month or two to adapt to an antidepressant, so it may take some time for an individual to determine whether a medication is right for them. Oftentimes, if a family member successfully manages depression with a certain medication, that medicine will be considered first.

There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment option for unipolar depression, and it may take some trial and error to find an effective solution.

Even with robust care, some people experience treatment-resistant depression, or depression that doesn’t get better after trying at least two antidepressant medications. While that can be discouraging, today’s mental health care professionals have more tools at their disposal than ever before, including noninvasive options such as heart rate variability and biosound/biofeedback therapies, transcranial stimulation and neurofeedback training.

Tips for Coping with Depression

Managing depression is rarely as easy as simply going for a walk and committing to daily meditation – if it were that simple, far fewer people would report symptoms. However, there are coping strategies that can work in tandem with an individual’s treatment plan to increase their chances of remission.

  • Get a daily dose of sunlight: Research indicates that exposure to sunlight increases the body’s serotonin levels, helping individuals manage their moods.
  • Engage in physical activity: Daily exercise has been shown to greatly improve depressive symptoms, with researchers recognizing it as one of the most effective treatments.
  • Practice self-care: Going through the motions of caring for oneself can greatly improve an individual’s mood.
  • Maintain social connections: Resist the urge to self-isolate, and continue to make an effort to maintain contact with friends and family.
  • Keep a journal: Taking the time to write down your daily thoughts and experiences can help you be more aware of your emotional state and track your progress as you move through therapy.
  • Have a predictable bedtime and wake-up time: Maintaining a consistent daily schedule, even on the weekends, can help to regulate the body and its moods.

Seeking Support: Encouraging Professional Help and Peer Support

Due to the nature of the disease, seeking support for unipolar depression isn’t always easy. For many people, talking to a primary health care physician they already have a relationship with is the easiest way to get screened and obtain a referral for a qualified mental health professional.

Additionally, it’s helpful to talk to close friends and family members about what you’re experiencing. Because unipolar depression is so common, many people know what it’s like to live with its symptoms. Being open about your challenges and experiences can be therapeutic, and it can also give those closest to you an opportunity to check in on a regular basis. It’s also beneficial to connect with others through support groups, whether that’s in person or online.

Oftentimes, connecting directly with a mental health care provider is the most effective way to get prompt treatment. At Restore Mental Health, we have a variety of tailored programs to treat those with conditions such as unipolar depression. To learn more, contact us today.