When a depression relapse occurs, treatment such as medication, cognitive behavioral therapy or ECT for depression can help a person to recover.

Though people who receive depression treatment may experience a significant reduction of their symptoms, a depression relapse is still possible over time. In fact, research shows that almost half of people who discontinue treatment for depression will relapse within a few months. While depression relapse statistics show that this condition is likely, there are steps people can take to prevent depression from returning.

What Is Depression Relapse?

Most depression relapse definitions are similar, and each provides additional information about what this type of relapse looks like. According to medical professionals, relapse occurs when a person returns to meeting the full diagnostic criteria for depression after being in remission. In other words, a depression relapse is when someone becomes depressed again after feeling better for a period of time.

Signs of a Depression Relapse

Since a relapse means a return to depression, depression relapse symptoms are the same as those associated with major depressive disorder. A person who has relapsed into depression may also have thoughts of suicide or feel hopeless or worthless.

Common signs of a depression relapse:

  • A lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Changes in weight
  • A persistent mood of unhappiness
  • Low energy levels
  • Moving more slowly than normal
  • Feeling physically uncomfortable without any medical reason
  • Irritability or anxiety

Feelings of depression or anxiety can lead to suicidal thinking. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or tendencies, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Common Relapse Triggers

Certain depression relapse triggers can increase a person’s risk of returning to depression. These can include any of the following:

Stressful life events:

Stress and depression can go hand in hand, and coping with life’s stressors can cause a person to slip back into depression. One study found that women with a history of depression were more likely to relapse after experiencing negative life events or stressors like financial difficulties.

Family history of depression:

When depression runs in the family, a person may be more likely to relapse. Research shows that when a parent has depression, children are significantly more likely to experience recurring depression.

Discontinuing treatment:

Depression relapse after stopping medication appears to be common. An analysis of multiple studies shows that the relapse rate is about double for people who stop treatment compared to those who continue to take medication treatment for depression.

Other medical conditions:

Having another health condition can increase the risk of depression relapse. One study found that depression relapse was common among people diagnosed with diabetes. Depression relapse is also more common among people with conditions like anxiety and substance use disorders.

Preventing Depression Relapse

A depression relapse prevention plan can help reduce the risk of recurrence. A person may develop a plan with a counselor before ending regular treatment sessions, and it can include a list of relapse triggers, signs of relapse and tools for coping with stressors. Being able to recognize signs of an impending relapse can help a person prevent a full relapse from occurring.

relapse prevention plan may include beneficial activities, such as regular exercise, meditation or spending time with friends. It may also include a list of steps to take if signs of relapse appear.

The Importance of Maintenance Treatment

A depression relapse prevention plan should also include maintenance treatment. This might include monthly check-ins with a therapist. Medication is also an important component of maintenance treatment. Because most antidepressants are effective for preventing depression relapse, continuing to take medication under the supervision of a doctor can be important for long-term recovery from depression.

Related Topic: High functioning depression treatment

Treating a Depression Relapse

For people experiencing the return of depression symptoms, it is important to know how to cope with depression relapse. Various therapies and treatments are effective for treating depression.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a common treatment for depression. It is effective because it helps people change negative ways of thinking.
  • Interpersonal Therapy: In interpersonal therapy for depression, a person explores relationships that may be contributing to the condition.
  • Medication: Depression medications can help by having a positive effect on brain chemicals that are responsible for mood and stress.
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT): When medications and therapy are not beneficial, ECT for depression may be an option.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Sim, Kang; et al. “Prevention of relapse and recurrence in […]f controlled trials.” International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, February 2016. Accessed October 4, 2019.

Moller, Hans-Jurgen; et al. “Relapse or recurrence in depression: Why has the cutoff been set at 6 months?” Medicographia, 2011. Accessed October 4, 2019.

National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression.” February 2018. Accessed October 4, 2019.

van Loo, Hanna; et al. “Multiple risk factors predict recurrence of major depressive disorder in women.” Journal of Affective Disorders, July 15, 2015. Accessed October 4, 2019.

Burcusa, Stephanie; Iacono, William. “Risk for recurrence in depression.” Clinical Psychology Reviews, December 2007. Accessed October 4, 2019.

Lustman, Patrick; et al. “The course of major depression in diabetes.” General Hospital Psychiatry, March 1997. Accessed October 4, 2019.

National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression: What you need to know.” (n.d.). Accessed October 4, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.