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How Long Is an Episode of Depression?

Ask a Doctor

My son is in his 20s and he has bouts of depression. This latest one has seemed to last forever – it’s been almost a year and I can’t get through to him, despite treatment with SSRIs and cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s hard to keep from despairing as there is no end in sight. How long is a typical episode of depression?

Doctor's Response

Sorry to hear about your son’s difficulties, but I’m glad he’s seeking treatment. If your son’s symptoms of depression are severe enough to warrant treatment with medication, he is most likely to feel better faster and for longer when medication treatment is combined with psychotherapy. Without treatment, your son’s symptoms would last much longer and could never get better. In fact, they could get worse. With treatment, his chances of recovery are quite good.

Untreated episodes of clinical depression typically last from six to 24 months. Properly treated episodes are much shorter in most people.

  • About two-thirds of people will recover and be able to return to their normal activities within days or weeks.
  • About 25% of people will continue to exhibit moderate to severe symptoms for months to years after the initial episode.
  • Nearly 10% of people with depression will have continuous or intermittent symptoms for two or more years. A person who has one episode of depression should be on the lookout for recurrent episodes of depression, since these occur about 50% of the time. However, quick treatment will usually be effective for these recurrent depressions, as well.

Treatment may include addressing any medical conditions that cause or worsen depression. For example, an individual who is found to have low levels of thyroid hormone might receive thyroid hormone replacement with levothyroxine (Synthroid, Levoxyl).

Other components of treatment may be supportive therapy, such as changes in lifestyle and behavior, psychotherapy, complementary therapies, and may often include medication.

Most practitioners will continue treatment of major depression for six months to a year. Treatment for teens with depression can have a significantly positive effect on the adolescent's functioning with peers, family, and at school.

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