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Unipolar Disorder

Like its sister disorder (Bipolar Disorder) Unipolar Disorder is characterized by severe and debilitating depressive episodes of Clinical Depression or Major Depression. However, where Bipolar Disorder consists of cycles of manic (high) and depressive (low) symptoms, Unipolar Disorder does not. Patients who suffer from Unipolar Disorder are true to its name in that they only have symptoms at one end of the spectrum (the low end). There is a major distinction between a person who is going through a rough patch and may be unhappy and a patient that is clinically depressed. Depressed people are typically unaffected by happy moment. Their mood does not lift in response to the people and the events that surround them. They often remain apathetic and emotionally unresponsive. Unipolar Depression or Unipolar Disorder is sometimes classified as Clinical Depression or Major Depression. But, whatever the name, patients that suffer from this disorder experience significant disruption in their work, social and family life. They no longer enjoy the things they used to do and may become withdrawn, hopeless and overwhelmed.

If severe Unipolar Depression goes untreated, it can result in suicide, lost relationships and lost jobs. Patients may miss work and family events, and lack the motivation to participate in activities they used to find pleasurable. The causes for Unipolar Disorder are not fully understood but they may be varied, and can include disruption in neural circuits and neurochemicals in the brain, genetic predisposition, secondary disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. See the related articles titled Depressive Disorders and Clinical Depression for more information.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may vary from patient to patient, depending on the severity of the disorder.

Symptoms can include:

  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions
  • Apathetic or flat emotional behavior
  • Irritability, nervousness, anxiety
  • Decreased energy, feeling persistently fatigued
  • Sadness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness
  • Withdrawal from social and family activities
  • Decreased sexual desire and activity
  • Suicidal thoughts, talk of suicide or planning for suicide attempt
  • Disturbance in eating or sleep habits, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or sleeping excessively

How is it diagnosed and treated?

The diagnosis of Unipolar Disorder or Unipolar Depression can be simple, but less severe cases may not be so easy to diagnose. Doctors will perform physical and mental evaluations to rule out other disease or illness and to be sure that there are no coincident mental disorders, like Anxiety Disorders, Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, or Eating Disorder among others.

In a major depressive disorder with incomplete recovery, depressive symptoms can recede and be replaced by chronic hypochondriacal concerns, irritable mood, and secondary relationship problems. In other patients, called masked depressives, complaints may focus on physical illness and the patient may seem outwardly cheerful and deny feelings of depression. Other patients will complain of fatigue, and aches and pains.

To diagnose Unipolar Depression, doctors will look for the symptoms detailed above. These symptoms must occur every day or nearly every day and endure all day or nearly all day. The risk of recurrence after treatment can be as high as 50%.

Treatment(s) can include:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) in severe cases
  • Medication as appropriate: Antidepressants (SSRIs, tricclics, MAOIs)
  • Hospitalization in severe cases
  • Family or Couples Therapy if appropriate

Index of Articles


10-25% of women and 5-12% of men
will suffer from Unipolar Disorder at some time in their lives. The mean age of onset is 27-30.

There is a significant risk of suicide in patients with severe symptoms (up to 15%), and a significant chance of developing Bipolar I Disorder (5-10% of those with single episodes, and 10-15% of adolescents with recurrent episodes)

Bipolar Disorder presents a higher risk of recurrence. Patients with an initial episode of mania have an 80%-90% probability of recurrence. Whereas recurrence for both unipolar and bipolar disorder occur more frequently with each successive episode.

In men and women with unipolar disorder, cardiovascular disorders and suicide are the leading cause of death.

Of 4,119 men, 1,319 died of cardiovascular complications, 1,052 died as a result of suicide, and 547 died of cancer. 2,747 men died of natural causes and 1,372 died of unnatural causes.

Of 4,902 women with unipolar disorder, 1,428 died of cardiovascular causes, 993 died as a result of suicide, and 830 died from cancer. Overall, 3,615 died of natural causes, and 1,287 died of unnatural causes.

If you are in a crisis please call:
1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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