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What is Dysthymia or Persistent Depressive Disorder?

By Pam Dewey • dysthymia, persistent depressive disorder, what is dysthymia, long term depression, depression, kinds of depression, persistent depression, dysthymia depression, prolonged depression • December 22, 2021

Most people are familiar with depression. You’ve probably also heard of postpartum depression and maybe even major depressive disorder. But the term dysthymia — pronounced dis-thigh-mia — also known as persistent depressive disorder, you’ve likely not encountered before.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, “Dysthymia is a milder, but long-lasting form of depression.” What differentiates dysthymia is that it lasts at least 2 years or longer. For some, it can be a lifelong issue.

Milder depression is still disruptive

Because the symptoms are milder, people may be less likely to seek help. Psycom states, “Indeed, the catch-22 of high-functioning depression is that sufferers often believe that since they can push through their sadness while barely missing a step, it would be indulgent to seek help.” However, just because symptoms are less severe, it doesn’t mean that the condition can’t be potentially dangerous and severely disrupt a person’s life.

Here are some symptoms people with dysthymia may experience:

  • Angry outbursts
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Irritability
  • Working too much
  • Withdrawing from loved ones
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Lack of focus
  • Feeling consistently sad

It’s harder to diagnose or acknowledge

The consistency is also part of what makes dysthymia harder to diagnose and why people are more likely to ignore it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states, “An episode of depression usually represents a break from someone’s normal life and outlook, while dysthymia is often embedded into a person’s life and outlook because they experience symptoms for such prolonged periods of time.” Since it’s less of a disruption, it may not seem like it’s a problem that can be fixed.  

NAMI also states that dysthymia often starts during childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. For children or young people, this can be particularly confusing, as they may not understand that what they’re experiencing is a form of depression. According to the Child Mind Institute, young people and those around them may think “that a downbeat mood, low self-esteem or irritability is just a part of a child or teenager’s personality,” when actually they are dealing with dysthymia.

You can treat dysthymia

People with dysthymia do benefit from treatment. Therapy and medication are often effective, both separately or together. Finding the right therapist can make a big difference. NAMI states, “according to a study that followed people experiencing dysthymia for nine years, one of the most important factors of recovery is having confidence in your health care providers.” It can take some time to find a therapist who is a good fit.

“If you don’t find the right therapist immediately, don’t give up. Most people have had both good and bad experiences with therapists. It’s normal to have to try a few,” says Fraser Licensed Psychologist and Site Manager Dr. Ruth Swartwood. “It’s also totally okay to switch to a different therapist.”

According to NAMI, the study also found that people who recovered “felt like they gained ‘tools to handle life,’ including understanding themselves and their condition, having self-acceptance and self-compassion and focusing on solving problems that create distress.”

Fraser offers mental health services for children through adults and serves people with co-occurring conditions. You can also reach out for immediate help by calling the Fraser Hope Line at 612-446-HOPE (4673), Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The free phone line connects people directly with a care advocate.