DepressionIt’s not unusual to have times when you feel very low after an illness is diagnosed, and during or after treatment. Many people feel physically and emotionally exhausted from the treatment, and this can lower their mood. However, for some people affected by a serious illness their low mood may continue or get worse and they may need specialist help or treatment. Some people find that their sadness gives way to a situation where their mood is low most of the time for several weeks or more, and they are depressed.

This section outlines the common symptoms of depression, which may help you to decide if you are depressed. It also gives information to help you understand more about depression when it occurs alongside illness.

Depression can develop slowly, making it very difficult for either you or your family to recognise when it started. In other cases it can seem to hit you suddenly – one day you wake up and realise that you feel hopeless and helpless and are engulfed in a 'black cloud' of depression.

Depression can affect anyone at any age. It is extremely common – one in five (20%) people are affected by depression at some time in their lives. Depression is not a sign of personal failure or inability to cope. You can’t 'pull yourself together' or 'snap out of it'. There are things, however, that you can do to help yourself.

Depression can usually be successfully treated. The first step to feeling better is getting appropriate help.


Most people are familiar with some of the symptoms of depression; we all have days when our mood is low. Usually people or events can cheer us up, or after a few days we feel our usual selves again.

Symptoms of depression can include:

  • Having a very low mood for most of the time
  • Not being able to be lifted out of your low mood
  • Not feeling your usual self
  • Not being able to enjoy anything
  • Loss of interest in favourite activities
  • Feeling worse in the mornings
  • Problems getting off to sleep or waking early
  • Poor sleeping patterns or sleeplessness
  • Poor concentration and forgetfulness
  • Feelings of guilt/burden/blame
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Feeling vulnerable or oversensitive
  • Feeling close to tears
  • Irritability
  • Loss of motivation, unable to start or complete jobs.

Depression can also cause physical symptoms such as tiredness, loss or increase of appetite and physical aches and pains, though these can also be caused by your illness and its treatment.

When men become depressed they are more likely to be aware of the physical symptoms rather than the emotional or psychological ones. Women tend to be more aware of the emotional symptoms.

It can be very difficult to know whether you are depressed. Look back at the list of symptoms. If your mood is low most of the time and you have even one or two of the other symptoms, talk to your doctor.

If your close family and friends tell you that you need help then you probably do.

You can ask to be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist who has specialist knowledge of depression. You could find out about antidepressant medications and ask your doctor if they think you need them.

If you need more information about depression Breathing Space Scotland will be able to help you

Antidepressant therapy

Some people will be prescribed an antidepressant to help to lift their mood. Antidepressants work by affecting certain chemicals within the brain. They work slowly, so you will not usually notice any improvement in your symptoms until about two weeks after you start treatment. The benefits will then build up over another three to four weeks. Your doctor may have to try more than one drug to find the one which suits you best. It is important to give each drug a good try before stopping or changing it.

Your doctor will recommend that you continue to take antidepressant medication until you have been back to your usual self for at least three months. Then the dose will be gradually reduced before it is stopped altogether. Stopping too soon increases the risk that the depression will come back.

Antidepressants are not addictive, and most people only need to take them for about six months to help them through their depression.

St John's Wort

St John's Wort is a herbal treatment which some research has shown to be effective in treating depression for some people. It may cause fewer side effects than antidepressants. Other research has shown that it is not as effective. You should not take St John's Wort if you are taking other antidepressants.

You should talk to your doctor if you plan to try taking St John's Wort as it can interact with medicines and may alter their effectiveness, including blood thinning drugs such as warfarin, the Pill, and treatments for epilepsy and HIV. As with other treatments for depression, it may take several weeks to get the full benefits.

The active ingredient in St John’s Wort – hypericin – interacts with sunlight. This means that people who take St Johns Wort may burn more easily, so if you go out in the sun, protect any areas of exposed skin with a high factor sun block.

Condition-specific information

Further information on conditions that may be affecting you or those around you:

Support Groups

Visit the NHS inform Support Services Directory to search for local organisations that may help with the issues you are facing:

Last updated: 29 March 2012

This content was supplied by Macmillan Cancer Support.