Depression after a stroke

Photo of an older couple sitting on a park bench

Some people develop after a stroke. It is important to diagnose and treat it. Good medical treatment and nursing care are crucial, along with support from family and friends.

Grief and sadness are normal shortly after a stroke. But about one third of all people who have a stroke later develop depression that requires treatment. The condition is called post-stroke (PSD). Women may have a slightly higher risk than men of becoming depressed following a stroke.

Depression is not always noticed and treated properly after a stroke. So it’s particularly important to take any signs seriously. Apart from the impact on mental health, can prevent proper physical recovery too.

Why can depression occur following a stroke?

It is not exactly clear whether the causes of post-stroke are mainly physical or psychological. After all, a stroke damages the brain, and brain damage can also affect people's emotions. But can also be a reaction to physical and mental limitations and the sudden loss of independence. This is known as reactive .

Depression normally occurs within the first few weeks after a stroke. During that time, people have to come to terms with the fact that they could have died, and have to recover physically. In the medium to long term, some people will have to get used to disabilities and how they affect their daily lives as well as their relationships with friends and family. This can take a while, and sometimes that is the very cause of in some people.

Depression is more common after a major stroke than after a mild one, and is also more likely in people who have already suffered from . The severity of a person's often depends on how physically or mentally limited they are in daily life. Studies have shown that a person's social environment and living arrangements can also influence the likelihood of developing . Good treatment and social support can also help reduce the risk of developing following a stroke.

Sometimes goes away after a while without treatment. Most people do need treatment to get over the illness, though.

How can you tell if someone is depressed after a stroke?

Post-stroke is diagnosed in the same way as "normal" . The symptoms are:

  • Deep sadness
  • Loss of interest
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor concentration
  • Low self-esteem
  • Insomnia
  • Negative and pessimistic thoughts about the future
  • Suicidal tendencies

If several of these symptoms occur together and last for more than two weeks, it could be a sign of . It is important to seek medical advice if you think that you or the person who had a stroke might have .

Distinguishing between and the feelings of sadness caused by a stroke can be difficult. Strokes often lead to paralysis on one side of the body. That can seriously affect a person's ability to move or lead an independent life. Everyday activities like eating and washing may be difficult without the help of others. On top of this, people may have problems with body awareness because they have little or no feeling in the paralyzed side of their body. All of this can be a great strain.

Often, people with post-stroke are also unable to tell others how they’re feeling because they have trouble speaking. Not being able to communicate properly can be very depressing. Some people may just appear depressed to others because they are unable to express their emotions as easily as they could before their stroke. That's why it's so important that the people around them – doctors and carers, as well as friends and family – look out for signs of .

They might have less control over how they express their emotions after a stroke and find that they suddenly start crying – or even laughing – for no apparent reason. They may also generally have more mood swings and react very emotionally. This increased emotionality is not the same thing as even if there are similarities.

What effects does depression have?

As well as having a major impact on quality of life, post-stroke can slow down the process of recovery. Whether or not stroke-related disabilities improve depends on various factors, including how actively a person participates in their therapy. For example, certain physical exercises can help to improve movement on the paralyzed side of the body. But this often takes a long time, and can require a lot of patience and motivation. Someone experiencing will have more trouble motivating themselves and less desire to work on regaining their physical and mental abilities than someone who doesn’t have . As a result, it can take them longer to recover, or they might even deteriorate.

What treatment options are available?

Depression is often treated with medication (antidepressants) and/or psychotherapy. But everyday support from relatives or professional carers can play an important role in the recovery process and in coping with disabilities too.

Making sure treatment and rehabilitation are well organized will help improve the impairments caused by the stroke. In turn, good physical recovery can have a positive effect on mental health.

Can antidepressants help?

Studies show that special medication for (antidepressants) can help people who have developed post-stroke . They may also have a positive effect on physical recovery. Research has concentrated on two groups of antidepressants: selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and triyclic antidepressants. They are among the most frequently prescribed drugs for treating .

After roughly 2 to 4 months, it was found that

  • without antidepressants, 71 out of 100 people were still experiencing .
  • with antidepressants, 50 out of 100 people were still experiencing .

So the antidepressants were effective in 21 out of 100 people.

The medication doesn't have an immediate effect. But the symptoms usually begin to improve within the first six to eight weeks. Some people also find that they start to feel better after a while without taking antidepressants. Generally speaking: The more severe the , the greater the benefit of medication. But sometimes the doesn’t go away despite taking medication, or it may return.

What are the possible side effects of antidepressants?

Antidepressants can cause symptoms like drowsiness, shaking and digestion problems. But there isn't enough research to say how often such side effects are experienced by people who have had a stroke. Because walking can be difficult or only possible with a walking aid after a stroke, it is especially important to pay attention to side effects that influence coordination. Dizziness and drowsiness can increase the risk of falling, for example. There isn't enough research on the effects of antidepressants in people with specific problems such as trouble speaking or understanding.

Antidepressants can also interact with other medication and affect how it works. For those and other reasons, medical professionals carefully monitor people who take antidepressants following a stroke. They may need to stop taking the medication or switch to other medication.

How can psychological and psychotherapeutic treatment help?

Psychiatric and psychological health professionals can help the person deal with their condition and the changes it brings. This support is provided at hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, but also at centers for psychosocial support and psychotherapy practices.

Studies indicate that psychotherapy can help relieve post-stroke :

  • Without psychotherapy: 75 out of 100 people were still experiencing after one year.
  • With psychotherapy: 59 out of 100 people were still experiencing after one year.

So psychotherapy helped 16 out of 100 people with post-stroke .

How can you help people with depression?

A person’s chances of recovery after a stroke improve if everyone around them is committed to supporting their treatment. That means the nursing staff, physiotherapists, psychologists, doctors and their relatives. Counseling and psychoeducation can help. Psychoeducation helps the person and their relatives understand the condition and cope with its effects.

Occupational therapy has been proven to help regain certain physical abilities too. It involves practicing daily activities like washing, getting dressed and doing things around the house. Exercise and strength training are important as well and can even help ease the symptoms of . Successful rehabilitation therapy requires a lot of motivation, but it can make an important difference to people's quality of life after a stroke.

Just trying to cheer people up or give them advice when they’re depressed is usually not helpful. A lot of empathy and patience are needed. People with are also prone to mood swings. And can take many different forms. For example, older people tend to experience more pain than younger people.

What support do family members need?

Looking after a loved one who’s had a stroke can be very – sometimes too – challenging. So it’s not uncommon for family caregivers to experience as well. That makes it more difficult for them to provide proper support. The result can be additional strain on both the carer and the person being cared for. So looking after the carers is not only important for them and other family members, but also for the person who had the stroke.

There are plenty of places to get help, like information centers and support groups, where people who have and their families can get advice about various health care, financial or psychosocial matters. Many cities and local authorities have special centers that provide information on nursing care, free of charge. Family members can also attend courses to learn things like basic nursing techniques.

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Crocker TF, Brown L, Lam N et al. Information provision for stroke survivors and their carers. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2021; (11): CD001919.

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Allgemeinmedizin und Familienmedizin (DEGAM). Schlaganfall (S3-Leitlinie). AWMF-Registernr.: 053-011. 2020.

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Legg LA, Lewis SR, Schofield-Robinson OJ et al. Occupational therapy for adults with problems in activities of daily living after stroke. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2017; (7): CD003585.

Minshall C, Pascoe MC, Thompson DR et al. Psychosocial interventions for stroke survivors, carers and survivor-carer dyads: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Top Stroke Rehabil 2019; 26(7): 554-564.

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Saunders DH, Sanderson M, Hayes S et al. Physical fitness training for stroke patients. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2016; (3): CD003316.

Xu XM, Zou DZ, Shen LY et al. Efficacy and feasibility of antidepressant treatment in patients with post-stroke depression. Medicine (Baltimore) 2016; 95(45): e5349.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on October 25, 2022

Next planned update: 2025


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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