Common signs and symptoms of depression

Health Agenda
Mental Health

Common symptoms of depression

Updated October 2023 | 5 min read
Words by Kerry McCarthy

Depression affects people in different ways and may cause emotional, mental and physical symptoms. Here are the signs and symptoms of depression to look out for.

"I've been living on what feels like a rollercoaster for most of my life," says Jenni, now in her 50s and a grandmother. "I always knew I needed some kind of support, but mental health wasn’t spoken about, and I didn’t know how to get the care I needed. [But] I realised it’s not just about me. It’s about being well enough to care for my family, my children and my grandchildren."

Depression affects people in different ways and may cause emotional, mental and physical symptoms.

When you feel unwell, you can go to the GP and list your symptoms. Runny nose. Sore throat. Headache. As well as helping the health professional suggest possible treatments, these symptoms also indicate that your body is rundown and not working at its best. When it comes to depression, the signs and symptoms can be both harder to spot and harder to describe.

What is depression?

Simply put, depression is an ongoing feeling of sadness and loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed. There are various types of depression, ranging from mild to more severe, and it can affect people in vastly different ways.

Some facts about depression:

  • Depression impacts about 1 million Australians every year.
  • Better Health Victoria estimates that one in six women and one in eight men will experience depression over the course of their life.
  • Studies by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) show depression can affect very young and even preschool children.
  • Depression can have both emotional and physical symptoms.

Knowing common symptoms of depression, and their potential impact, can help us recognise when we may need extra support.

What are the symptoms of depression?

"The first time I noticed myself having any experience with mental illness was in the beginning of high school," says Nic Newling, who began his harrowing mental health journey at the age of 12. "And what I noticed was real anxiety and panic."

Emotional symptoms of depression can be tough to recognise. While some people find it hard to mask their feelings, and you can tell just by looking at them how sad or happy they are, others may deliberately hide their feelings.

"It took me a number of years to get the help I needed, having different treatments, trying different medication, it was just really debilitating," Nic says. "I was hospitalised a couple of times. I think part of it was me not knowing how to talk about myself and my own experience."

Symptoms of depression can be hard to recognise in ourselves. We all have moments of sadness, and times when we may feel helpless or unmotivated. While for short periods these symptoms don’t always add up to depression, if these feelings remain constant for more than two weeks, they can be something more serious.

Emotional symptoms of depression

  • Low interest or motivation.
  • Feeling sad or unhappy.
  • Feelings of panic, loss of control or power.
  • Irritability or unable to concentrate or make a decision.
  • Feelings of hopelessness, and that a situation can’t ever change or improve.

Physical symptoms of depression

People often forget that mental illness doesn’t just impact how we feel, but can also impact how we look and behave.

Physical symptoms of depression can be just as debilitating as emotional symptoms and may be a clear sign that a person is struggling.

Common physical symptoms of depression include:

  • an inability to fall or stay asleep, or unsettled sleep
  • sudden weight loss or gain
  • difficulty sitting still or concentrating for long periods
  • fatigue or very low energy
  • lower tolerance to pain
  • stomach or digestive issues
  • head or body aches and pains.

These symptoms can also be an indicator of other health issues, so ask for advice from your GP.

Depression in men

While depression symptoms aren't confined to a gender, depression affects one in eight men at some point in their lives, with seven men taking their own lives every day in Australia.

Social norms among men, like not talking about their feelings or bottling up emotions, can mean depression can sometimes present differently. For example, men could be more likely to talk about the physical symptoms of depression like feeling tired or getting headaches rather than saying they feel depressed, anxious or not themselves.

It’s so important to check in regularly with the men in our lives, as they may feel too embarrassed to speak up about their mental health or see speaking about their feelings as a sign of weakness.

Depression in women

Hormonal changes in a woman’s life related to pregnancy, the post-partum period, perimenopause and menopause can bring about feelings that could be related to depression.

Depression can affect up to 10% of women during pregnancy and up to 16% after the birth of their babies up to the first year. Symptoms can include feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety and tiredness that may make it hard for them to care for themselves or their new baby.

In perimenopause (the natural process leading up to menopause when your ovulation and periods may become irregular or stop) or in menopause (when your menstrual cycle has officially stopped for a year), changes to hormones can make you feel different and you may be tempted to judge yourself harshly for how you may be feeling. It’s important to listen to yourself and seek help if your feelings aren’t going away.

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How symptoms of depression can impact your life

Experiencing any of the symptoms of depression, especially over a long period, can have a big impact on your daily life.

It could affect your ability to engage at work, the quality of your relationships with family and friends, or you may find tasks or activities that were once enjoyable become too hard.

Mental illness can increase the chance of divorce by up to 80%. And a study by Beyond Blue showed one in five Australians report that they have taken time off work in the previous 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy.

Why we need help with depression

Despite a growing acceptance in society that depression and other mental-health challenges are common and should be treated like any other health condition or illness, the historic stigma around these conditions can prevent people from seeking help. This may lead to their symptoms of depression getting much worse.

Research published in the Psychotherapy Research journal shows the sooner someone seeks help and treatment for any illness, the better the outcome. If you or a loved one is experiencing ongoing symptoms of depression, you can reach out for help in a number of ways.

After seeking help, Jenni admits that life is better than it's ever been. "Over the past 18 months I’ve been in hospital for a total of 18 weeks, receiving excellent treatment for my mental health. I have benefitted so much. I don’t know what my life would look like without the care and support. I have hope, a brighter future and a solid recovery plan."

Getting help for depression

Your GP is the ideal first port of call to assess your needs and help you access mental health services. To gain access to Medicare-funded services, your GP may give you a mental health treatment plan and a referral to see a mental health professional.

Through our partnership with GP2U, all HCF members with health cover can access a standard online video GP consultation (up to 10 minutes) for a fee of $50.

To support members with faster, easier access to qualified mental health professionals, we're offering a free telehealth HealthyMinds Check-in with a psychologist for eligible members*. We also provide cover for eligible online cognitive behavioural therapy courses, delivered by This Way Up^. It’s just another way we provide a level of care that’s uncommon.

Where to find more mental health help:

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

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Signs of childhood depression

Depression in children can look and feel very different to what an adult might experience.

How to help a child with depression

Here's how families can help a child who’s struggling with depression.


* 1 HealthyMinds Check-in available per member per calendar year. Service is available free to all members with hospital cover. Excludes extras only cover, Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.

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