Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/22/2021
Nearly 10 percent of adults (ages 18 and up) in the United States will suffer from a depressive illness at some point.
And while you’ve probably heard of depression, did you know it’s sometimes broken up into depression scales — like mild depression, moderate and severe (also referred to as major)?
Mild and major depression may seem obvious enough — but what constitutes moderate? And are there different depressive symptoms for the different severities? Let’s dive in.
Before discussing how depression severity is determined, it’s helpful to understand exactly what depression is and what the symptoms of it are.
Common depressive symptoms include:
Constant feelings of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness or pessimism
Feeling irritable, guilty, helpless or worthless
Decreased energy and/or tiredness
No longer feeling interested in activities you once found pleasurable
Changes in appetite and/or weight
Aches, pains or digestive issues without a clear cause
Thoughts of self-harm, death or suicide
Not all depressed patients experience every symptom. Symptoms may also fluctuate — meaning, you could notice certain ones sometimes, and others at different moments.
To be diagnosed, depressive symptoms must persist for at least two weeks.
Clinical depression symptoms, and the severity in which you feel them, also goes into classifying if you have mild, moderate or severe depression.
It’s worth noting that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not have any strict guidelines on how many symptoms a person must be dealing with in order to be deemed to have moderate depression. Instead, it is up to your healthcare provider to make that call.
If you’re not familiar with it, the DSM-5 is a manual used by mental health professionals as a tool to help define and classify mental illnesses.
Because there are no strict guidelines on how to classify moderate depression, there’s no exact definition to give here on how a clinician may diagnose it.
But it’s likely that a mental health professional will assess how deeply the depressive symptoms affect your day-to-day life and make the determination based on that.
If your depressed mood doesn’t affect your life much, you may be diagnosed with mild depression.
If they affect you on a daily basis, it could be moderate — and if you find yourself paralyzed by the symptoms, it could be severe.
If you suspect you may have moderate depression (or even mild depression or severe depression, really), you should contact a mental health professional.
They will be able to assess your symptoms and give you a diagnosis.
From there, they’ll work with you on treatment options. Here, some of the common ways to address depression.
One treatment option you may be offered is talk therapy — specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Research supports the idea that CBT can be an effective way to treat moderate depression in depressed patients.
If you participate in CBT as a means to treat your depression, you can expect to follow these steps:
Work with your therapy provider to identify what’s going on in your life that needs help (ie, your depression)
Set goals for what you’d like to see change
Work with your therapy provider to identify patterns and behaviors that are negatively affecting your life
Come up with ways to address and change those behaviors
Medication is another treatment option for moderate depression — specifically antidepressants.
It is thought that depression is caused by low levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain (they’re what transmit information between neurons).
Examples of neurotransmitters are serotonin (which regulates mood, amongst other things) and dopamine (which may help you feel motivated).
Antidepressants boost levels of certain neurotransmitters to help with depression. But they don’t work right away — it can take four to eight weeks before you may notice a difference in symptoms.
Different types of antidepressants are used in the treatment of depression — including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and more.
Bupropion (sold under the brand name Wellbutrin®) is also a common medication prescribed by health care professionals.
It is called an atypical antidepressant because it doesn’t fall into one of the other categories. It is also used to treat seasonal affective disorder.
Before prescribing you medication for the treatment of depression, you may also be asked for a family history of depression and about other medical conditions you have. This will help a health care professional assess if a medication poses a potential risk factor.
Often, mental health pros will categorize depression in three categories:
To determine what category you fall into, a clinician may look at your depressive symptoms and how they are affecting your life.
Symptoms of depression can include everything from fatigue, weight gain, irritability and more.
There are no strict depression scales or guidelines as to what constitutes mild, moderate or severe depression.
Instead, a therapist or mental health provider will assess your depressed mood and other symptoms of depression you may have and determine if you have moderate depression (or one of the others).
Once the severity of depression is determined, they will talk to you about next steps. Chances are that means discussing treatment for depression.
Two of the more common treatments for moderate depression are therapy and medication.
If you don’t know where to find mental health help, speak to your primary care physician or schedule an online counseling appointment.
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