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What's the difference between situational and clinical depression?

“What makes you think you’re actually depressed?”

Jamie had just lost her boyfriend, Matt, to a car accident; at 27 years old, he’d been at the prime of his life, and even though they’d not yet gotten engaged, he’d begun to tease Jamie that he needed to find a second job so he could afford a ring she deserved.

A number of weeks after the funeral, Jamie was still in shambles, incapable of normal function. She had little appetite, if any. She couldn’t sleep, called in sick to work often, and denied her friends any social time.

“One night, my sister Andrea came over unannounced with takeout,” says Jamie. “It was kind of surprising because even though my sister and I are close, neither of us are really talkers. We’re both really logical and level-headed and pretty pragmatic people, and most people who know us know that sometimes, when we say things, it might come off almost kind of cold.

“But when she listened to me crying over Matt, and she followed up with, ‘So what makes you think you’re actually depressed?’ it hit me really hard. It just seemed so insensitive. Like, what do you mean, ‘What makes you think you’re depressed?’ Of course I’m depressed! The love of my life just died!’”

But what Andrea had intended to unveil, in her own, unprofessional way, was if what Jamie had was clinical depression, a depressive disorder, or situational depression, which is considered by experts to be short-term and transitory.

Situational depression is typically shorter, and often tied to a major life event that is significant, like an illness, job loss, divorce, or in Jamie’s case, a death. Clinical depression, on the other hand, is chronic and can keep recurring for years.

Situational depression, if left untreated, can certainly lead to clinical depression, but that’s for another day. Right now, let’s discuss the difference between the two.

Situational depression is considered an adjustment disorder with depressed mood, and happens when those scary and traumatic life changes occur, and the individual is incapable of coping in a healthy way. Over time, however, situational depression tends to life, particularly if the person can talk about their feelings and learn how to adjust to their new normal. As they begin to find healing and hope from their sad circumstance, the sadness begins to go away, and the situational depression lifts.

When symptoms of depression begin to occur within three months of a traumatic or stressful event, symptoms that point to the individual becoming incapable of normal function, situational depression may be the diagnosis. Some of these symptoms include sadness, frequent crying, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, substance abuse, insomnia or hypersomnia, overeating, lack of appetite, or other behavioral problems, like violence or skipping school or work. When these are acknowledged, and the individual faces them one by one, it’s likely the depression will go away.

Clinical depression is chronic. It can recur for years. It may have started as situational depression. But the strange thing that a lot of people may not realize is that some people with clinical depression don’t often display the biggest symptom so many of us connect with the disorder: sadness. In fact, many people with clinical depression may not look sad, but rather just feel frequently tired, anxious, restless, irritable or slow. They may be atypically or uncharacteristically pessimistic. They may no longer want to do the things they once enjoyed. They may complain often of certain physical ailments or pains. In worst case scenarios, they talk about or attempt suicide.

Treatment for both situational and clinical depression is readily available; neither is a death sentence. There are multiple proven techniques for breaking through depression, whatever type it may be.

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