Help! Do I have depression?

Question: have been feeling sad for some time. I am not sure if I have depression. I want to know if depression and sadness are one and the same.

Answer: The words depression and sadness are sometimes used interchangeably in common speech. For instance, we might hear people say “I’m really depressed” when they mean to say “I’m very sad”. People tend to mistakenly associate the clinical condition of depression with the experience of sadness. We all experience sadness as a normal human emotion triggered by difficult, hurtful experiences or situations in life. Such sadness lifts when the situation changes or the emotional pain fades.

Thus, to state broadly/simply:

1) Sadness is generally a passing emotion, while depression is likely to be continuous.

2) Common sadness is usually about something specific that is bothering us and the mood tends to lift when the person engages in something pleasurable. Clinical depression may or may not have a triggering event/situation and unlike sadness, depression tends to color/influence most spheres of life including the activities that were once pleasurable. Also it is more prolonged, lasting for at least more than two weeks.

3) While sadness usually has a trigger, depression may or may not have an identifiable trigger and even when there is some cause, the triggering circumstance/s may not sufficiently account for the severity and intensity of depression.

4) Unlike normal sadness, depression is accompanied by other symptoms in varying severity such as reduced energy, loss of pleasure, and feelings of being worthless or guilty, etc.

On the whole, depression as a clinical condition is diagnosed based on a cluster of symptoms, their duration and severity and not merely based on presence of sadness.

Question: Is it true that individuals get depressed only because of their life situations or negative life events?

Answer: Because we tend to associate normal sadness with depression, we might think that people get depressed only because of their life situations or negative life events. However, clinical depression need not necessarily/always have a triggering negative event/situation.

Question: Anybody facing a major problem in life is bound to feel depressed. So what is the point of seeking professional help in such cases?

Answer: While in some cases depression may not have any identifiable triggering circumstance, in other cases the depressed person as well as others in his/her life are aware of a major problem in life (e.g. failure in an important exam, death of a dear person, traumatic illness, etc.) that has contributed to the depression.

While it is rather natural that a person may feel intense sadness in such circumstances, it is important to seek appropriate professional help if the grief/sadness amounts to clinical depression.

Of course, the distinction between ‘normal’ sadness and clinical depression may be blurred/difficult to make in the context of a traumatic circumstance, especially during the initial days after a painful event. It is nevertheless important to mobilize all the necessary support in either case, i.e., whether or not the distress amounts to depression.

Depression may worsen the negative impact on health caused by the stressful situation and it may lower the person’s ability to deal with the difficult situation.

Hence depression must be seen as an issue that needs to be addressed alongside the stressful/traumatic situation.

Expert: Dr Seema Mehrotra

Professor of Clinical Psychology, NIMHANS, Banglaore