Anyone can think of life events that would make you sad or frustrated, take away your energy, and even make you question the meaning of your life. We don’t want to call every passing low mood depression because we’d be making an illness out of what might be a normal way of feeling under bad conditions. Not every sad or mad feeling is depression that needs to be checked out by a doctor or therapist, but that may be a possibility. How can we tell the difference?
Here are some general questions to ask yourself when you’re trying to understand certain feelings:
Is this a repeat?
Depression is an illness that may come back. Once you’ve had it and recovered, your chance of another depression is higher than for someone who never had it. If someone has had the illness of depression in the past, new changes in mood and actions might sometimes mean that it has returned.
How long has it been going on?
That has to be one of the biggest questions to ask when trying to spot a serious depression. If you feel sad for a day or two, or even a week before getting back into the swing of things, that is likely not the illness of depression so much as a reaction to life events. The disease of depression, with few exceptions, has to be there for a couple of weeks before we can be sure that the problem is more than common negative emotions.
What has happened?
We each react in our own ways to the things that happen in our lives. Disappointments make us sad or upset. When high hopes for the holidays are not met, for example, a person can have the “holiday blues.” When a person is experiencing major life changes, it is not surprising to see him weighed down by his pain and worries.
A special situation of loss happens when a loved one leaves or passes away. This special type of sadness, called grief, can last for weeks or even months. Sometimes grief becomes depression over time. But unlike depressed people, those who are grieving feel their sadness in “waves” rather than a constant low mood. Their sadness may get suddenly worse when reminded of their loss. They most often don't have thoughts about taking their own life or losing touch with reality.
Grief is about losses, while depression goes much further than sadness over a loss. Losses or disappointments that are worse and more recent affect us more strongly. Even the worst losses move each of us differently. We always have to keep in mind that a person experiencing grief might also be depressed at the same time.
What can you see besides sadness?
The illness of depression affects many parts of a person’s behavior, not just mood. Changes in sleep, interest, appetite, energy, concentration, feelings of guilt, and the will to live, occur more with depression than with simple sadness. A person who feels so low and can’t cheer up even by happy events such as time with a friend may have the illness of depression. When a person talks about taking one's own life or wishing to be dead, or when she is hearing things such as voices that others don’t hear, this means the person might be dealing with depression and not just the blues.
If you ask these questions, you might be able to figure out whether a person’s unhappy mood is coming from the blues or is a real illness in need of treatment. For further guidance, you may want to take the screening questionnaire below.
For additional resources on helping yourself or a loved one, please visit the links below.