BACKGROUND: Research so far provided few clues on the order in which depressive symptoms typically remit during treatment. This study examined which depressive symptoms improve first, and whether symptoms changed before, simultaneous with, or after the core symptoms of depression (i.e., sad mood, loss of pleasure, and loss of interest).
METHODS: Participants were 176 patients with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) receiving outpatient treatment (a combination of pharmacotherapy and psychological interventions) for depression. Participants filled out the Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology - Self Report (IDS-SR) for 16 to 20 consecutive weeks. For each symptom, the timing of onset of a persistent improvement was determined for each single-subject separately.
RESULTS: Which symptoms improved first differed markedly across patients. The core depression symptoms improved 1.5 to 2 times more often before (48% - 60%) than after (19% -28%) depressive cognitions ('view of myself' and 'view of the future'), anxiety symptoms ('feeling irritable' and 'feeling anxious / tense') and vegetative symptoms ('loss of energy', 'slowed down', and 'physical energy'). Only improvements in suicidal thoughts were more likely to occur before (46% - 48%) than after (29%) improvements in the depression core symptoms.
LIMITATIONS: Not all 'core depression-non-core symptom' combinations could be tested because some symptoms did not improve in a sufficient number of patients.
CONCLUSIONS: Which improvements mark the start of symptom remission differed between patients. Improvements in the core depression symptoms 'sad mood', 'loss of interest', and 'loss of pleasure' were more likely to occur before than after improvements in non-core symptoms.