Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/4/2022
Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, with an estimated 19.4 million adults in the United States affected in 2019 by at least one major depressive episode.
The good news is that most forms of depression can be treated with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of different approaches.
Treating depression is a process, and like any process, setting clear goals is an essential part of staying focused and measuring the progress you make with your mental health care provider as you work towards recovery.
Below, we’ve covered the basics of depression, including specific types of depression and how they may affect you.
We’ve also explained how goal setting for depression can work, as well as some common goals that you may set with your treatment provider.
Finally, we’ve explained the treatment options that you and your mental health provider may use to help you achieve your goals and, just as importantly, stay depression-free in the future.
Depression is a serious mood disorder that can affect the way you think, feel and behave. When you’re depressed, you may have persistent, severe negative moods that affect your thinking and ability to live a normal daily life.
The term “depression” is generally used to refer to major depressive disorder (MDD), a common form of depression that’s also sometimes called clinical depression.
However, there are also several other types of depressive disorder, including seasonal affective disorder (a form of depression that can develop during winter), postpartum depression (a type of depression that occurs in women after pregnancy) and severe depression.
Our guide to the types of depression discusses these common forms of mental illness in greater detail, as well as how their symptoms can differ.
Depression can involve depressive symptoms that affect your thoughts and moods, as well as a range of physical symptoms that affect your body.
Sometimes, the symptoms of depression are easy to mistake for other common mental illnesses — for example, many signs of depression, such as irritability and difficulty controlling worries, are also common anxiety symptoms associated with certain anxiety disorders.
We’ve discussed these symptoms and how they may affect you in our guide to the symptoms of clinical depression.
While depression often feels overwhelming, the good news is that it’s a treatable problem. Every year, millions of people receive treatment for depression, with data from the National Institute of Mental Health suggesting that in 2019, more than 66 percent of depressed people received some kind of treatment for their symptoms.
The even better news is that treatment for depression is typically effective, with data suggesting that up to 80 percent of people who are treated for depression experience improvements in their symptoms.
Since there’s more than one type of depression, with symptoms that can vary greatly from one person to the next, there’s no one-size-fits-all form of treatment for every person affected by a form of depressive illness.
Several different approaches are used to treat depression, including the use of antidepressant medications, types of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and simple changes to a person’s habits and lifestyle.
For many people, a combination of different approaches is the most effective way to bring the symptoms of depression under control.
One key part of the process of treating depression is setting clear treatment goals — objectives that define if and when the treatment of depression has been successful.
Mental health professionals use a range of different approaches to assess a person’s response to treatment, from clinician and patient-reported rating scales to alternative approaches such as the Goal Attainment Scale (GAS).
Goal attainment scaling — the basis of GAS — involves setting specific, broadly stated goals for depression treatment, then following up to track progress over time. By creating goals, you and your mental health provider can enhance motivation and produce better treatment outcomes.
GAS is used in many different areas of healthcare, including mental health treatment and even personal care for the elderly.
At the heart of GAS is setting and working to accomplish SMART goals, meaning goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound:
Specific: In order to be specific, a goal needs to be clear. It shouldn't leave any details up for interpretation. Both you and your treatment provider should be able to explain its meaning and intention.
Measurable. Goals need to be measurable, meaning you can clearly measure how far you’ve come at any time. Within the context of treating depression, this usually involves rating scales for your symptoms, recovery and quality of life.
Attainable. Recovering from depression can take time and effort, and treatment goals need to be attainable. Your mental health provider will work with you to create realistic goals that you can accomplish together as part of your treatment program.
Relevant. No two people with depression have completely identical symptoms, feelings and lives. Because of this, your goals need to be relevant to your needs as a person, as well as the factors that may be contributing to your depression.
Time-bound. Although it’s impossible to put a firm deadline on achieving recovery from depression, creating time-bound goals can help to inspire action and create a routine as part of treatment.
Not all mental health providers use this type of goal setting, and many that do might make their own modifications based on your needs. Others use it to complement other systems of creating and working towards specific treatment objectives.
Remember that no two people are the same, and that a form of goal setting for depression that works for you might not be best for someone else.
Depression is usually treated with prescription medications called antidepressants, therapy and changes to your habits and lifestyle.
When these treatments aren’t effective, other treatment options, such as some brain stimulation therapies, can also be used to reduce the severity of depression symptoms.
Your mental health provider will work with you to determine the optimal type of treatment for you based on your symptoms, needs and other factors. Your individual treatment for depression will have an effect on the type of goals you set and work towards with your provider.
We’ve discussed these treatments, their effects, advantages and disadvantages in our full guide to depression treatments.
For most people, the ultimate long-term goal of treatment is to overcome depression symptoms and achieve a state of remission (an end to serious, noticeable symptoms).
You and your mental health provider will work together to define your long-term objectives from treatment. A common goal is to return to a state in which you feel optimistic, self-confident and able to return to your normal level of functioning.
Your mental health provider might measure your progress by:
How you personally rate your depression symptoms after treatment with medication and/or therapy.
How well you feel you’re responding to certain forms of treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, or other interventions for depression.
How you score on a depression assessment, such as the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI-II) or Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D).
When it comes to overcoming depression, the definition of “long term” can vary. Some people recover from depression within a few months, while others may require continuing, long-term therapy to stop their depression from returning.
Achieving your long-term depression treatment goals can become easier when you break them down into smaller, more achievable short-term goals. These can be as simple as spending time with friends once every week or waking up by a certain time every day.
Below, we’ve shared some common short-term daily goals that you may want to work towards as part of your depression treatment.
When you’re depressed, simple things like getting out of bed can feel challenging. Taking part in therapy on a regular basis not only lets you receive the mental health benefits of psychotherapy, but it can also help create a routine in your life.
One short-term goal for overcoming depression could be to attend therapy once a week, every week, for at least two months.
This goal is SMART because it’s highly specific, measurable, attainable, relevant to your needs and time-bound in two ways, both because of the weekly session and the commitment to spend at least two months participating in therapy.
Exercise is a common natural method for treating depression that’s often used in combination with medication and therapy. Even a mild workout can lift your mood by triggering a release of endorphins — chemicals that promote feelings of pleasure and wellbeing.
If you’d like to use exercise as part of your depression treatment process, try setting a goal to exercise a specific number of times every week.
This could be as simple as setting a goal to walk around your neighborhood for 30 minutes a day every weekday, or go to the gym three times a week.
One good resource to use when setting exercise goals is the CDC’s guide to physical activity needs for adults, which outlines the recommended levels of exercise for mental and physical health benefits.
Research shows that improving your relationships with other people can help to lower your risk of being affected by depression.
As such, one short-term treatment goal that you might want to set for yourself is to spend time with your friends, family members or other people you care about on a regular and frequent basis, such as once a week.
Try to set aside at least one day a week to connect with the people you care about for the next month or two. If you need to, use these meetings to confide with your friends and family about how you’re feeling and the progress you’re making during your depression treatment.
It usually takes two to four weeks for antidepressants to start working effectively. To make sure you use your medication, try making it a short-term goal to take your antidepressant each day at approximately the same time, even if you don’t notice any immediate benefits.
As simple as this goal sounds, the routine that it creates can help you to stay focused and make progress towards overcoming your depression.
Another simple but effective short-term goal for treating depression could be to make a note of at least one positive event that happens every day for a certain period of time, such as a whole month.
When you’re depressed, it’s common to have a persistent sad, anxious or pessimistic attitude that doesn’t improve, even with positive events that would normally bring you pleasure.
While making a note of positive events won’t “snap you out” of depression, as one part of your treatment plan, it might help you make better progress by demonstrating that good things can, do and will happen when you live normally.
Your positive events could be interactions with other people, a day in which your symptoms felt less severe or just making progress towards your other goals. After one month, try to look back at the list you’ve made to see what’s happened and how far you’ve come.
Depression can affect your sleep habits. When you’re depressed, you might find it harder to fall asleep, stay asleep or wake up at a normal time. It can also contribute to feelings of fatigue and a general feeling of apathy, all of which can make getting out of bed a struggle.
As part of your treatment for depression, you might set a goal to get out of bed at a certain time every day, such as before 7 am.
By setting a clear wake-up time, you’ll set the tone for the day and check one goal off your list as soon as it begins.
In addition to providing motivation, setting a daytime schedule and sticking to it can be a great way to increase your total amount of sunlight exposure, which research suggests is linked with improved cognitive function in people affected by depression.
With time and effort, it’s almost always possible to overcome depression. For many depressed individuals, the key is to break the long-term goal of remission into small, smart goals that can be tracked and measured on a daily or weekly basis.
If you’re currently undergoing treatment for depression, you can work with your mental health provider to set specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound goals to use in your recovery process.
If you think you may be depressed, you can connect with a licensed psychiatry provider using our online psychiatry service to receive evidence-based care and treatment.
You can also learn more about recognizing, treating and preventing depression using our free online mental health resources.