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Overview of Mood Disorders

What are mood disorders?

A mood disorder is a type of mental health condition where there is a disconnect between actual life circumstances and the person's state of mind or feeling. A mood disorder can negatively affect your ability to function normally. It can have serious consequences in all aspects of life, from personal to professional.

Children, teens, and adults can all have mood disorders. But children and teens don’t always have the same symptoms as adults. It’s harder to diagnose mood disorders in children. That's because they can't always express how they feel, and symptoms may look different in children from how they look in adults.

Therapy, medicines, and support and self-care can help treat mood disorders.

What are the different types of mood disorders?

These are the most common types of mood disorders:

  • Major depression. Having less interest in normal activities, feeling sad or hopeless, and other symptoms for at least 2 weeks may mean depression.

  • Dysthymia. This is an ongoing (chronic), low-grade, depressed, or irritable mood that lasts for at least 2 years.

  • Bipolar disorder. With this condition, a person has times of depression alternating with times of mania or a higher mood.

  • Mood disorder linked to another health condition. Many health conditions (including cancer, injuries, infections, and chronic illnesses) can trigger symptoms of depression.

  • Substance-induced mood disorder. Symptoms of depression may be caused by drug abuse, alcohol use disorder, exposure to toxins, or side effects of medicines.

What causes mood disorders?

Many factors help lead to mood disorders. They are likely caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals. Life events (such as stressful life changes) may also help lead to a depressed mood. Mood disorders also tend to run in families.

Who is at risk for mood disorders?

Anyone can feel sad or depressed at times. But mood disorders are more intense and last longer. They are also harder to manage than normal feelings of sadness. Children, teens, or adults who have a parent with a mood disorder have a greater chance of also having a mood disorder. But life events and stress can expose or worsen feelings of sadness or depression. This makes the feelings harder to manage.

Sometimes life's problems can trigger depression. Things such as being fired from a job, getting divorced, losing a loved one, having a death in the family, and financial trouble can be difficult. Coping with the pressure may be troublesome. These life events and stress can bring on feelings of sadness or depression. Or they can make a mood disorder harder to manage.

The risk for depression in women is nearly twice as high as it is for men. Once a person in the family has this diagnosis, their siblings and their children have a higher chance of the same diagnosis.

What are the symptoms of mood disorders?

Depending on age and the type of mood disorder, a person may have different symptoms when they become depressed. The following are the most common symptoms of a mood disorder:

  • Ongoing sad, anxious, or “empty” mood

  • Feeling hopeless or helpless

  • Having low self-esteem

  • Feeling inadequate or worthless

  • Excessive guilt

  • Not interested in normal activities or activities that were once enjoyed, including sex

  • Relationship problems

  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much

  • Changes in appetite or weight

  • Decreased energy

  • Trouble focusing

  • Less able to make decisions

  • Frequent physical complaints (for example, headache, stomachache, or tiredness) that don’t get better with treatment

  • Running away or threats of running away from home

  • Very sensitive to failure or rejection

  • Irritability, hostility, or aggression

  • Repeated thoughts of death or suicide, planning for death, or wishing to die

In mood disorders, these feelings are more intense than what a person may normally feel from time to time. It’s also of concern if these feelings continue over time. Or if they interfere with someone's interest in family, friends, community, or work.

Any person who has thoughts of suicide should get medical help right away. If you can't get in immediately to your primary care provider, go to a reputable mental health facility in your community. Don't put it off.

The symptoms of mood disorders may seem like other conditions or mental health problems. Always talk with a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

When suicide is a risk

Mood disorders can cause repeated thoughts of death or suicide, planning for death, or wishing to die. People with these symptoms should get treatment right away. Call or text 988 if a person has suicidal thoughts, a suicide plan, and the means to carry out the plan. You will be connected to trained crisis counselors at the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. An online chat option is also available. Lifeline is free and available 24/7. Don't leave the person alone, even for a moment. The Lifeline is also available at 800-273-8255 or online at

How are mood disorders diagnosed?

Mood disorders are serious illnesses. A psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, advanced practice registered nurse, or licensed clinical social worker can diagnose mood disorders after completing a complete health history and psychiatric evaluation.

How are mood disorders treated?

Mood disorders can often be treated with success. Treatment may include:

  • Antidepressant and mood-stabilizing medicines. These medicines work very well in treating mood disorders, especially when combined with psychotherapy.

  • Psychotherapy (most often cognitive-behavioral or interpersonal therapy). This kind of therapy is focused on changing the person’s distorted view of themselves and their environment. It also helps to improve relationship skills. And it can help the person identify stressors in the environment and learn how to avoid or manage them.

  • Family therapy. A mood disorder can affect all aspects of a family (emotional, physical, occupational, and financial). Professional support can help both the person with the diagnosis and family members.

  • Other therapies. These may include transcranial stimulation and electroconvulsive therapy for refractory depression (treatment-resistant depression).

Families play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

Someone with a mood disorder may have times of stability and times when symptoms return. Long-term, continuous treatment can help the person stay healthy and control symptoms.

When correctly diagnosed and treated, people with mood disorders can live stable, productive, healthy lives.

Can mood disorders be prevented?

At this time, there are no ways to prevent or reduce mood disorders. But early diagnosis and treatment can reduce the severity of symptoms. It can also enhance the person’s normal growth and development, and improve their quality of life. If you or someone you care about has symptoms of a mood disorder, talk to your healthcare provider.

Key points about mood disorders

  • A mood disorder is a class of serious mental illnesses. The term broadly describes all types of depression and bipolar disorders.

  • Children, teens, and adults can all have mood disorders.

  • Many factors help lead to mood disorders. They are likely caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals.

  • Most people with a mood disorder have ongoing feelings of sadness. They may feel helpless and hopeless.

  • Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years. They can affect quality of life.

  • Mood disorders are most often treated with medicine, psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, or a combination of medicine and therapy.

  • Long-term, comprehensive follow-up care will help ensure the support needed for a full, productive life.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your healthcare provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions, especially after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
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