It's pretty incredible that here in the Western world, our society is starting to see mental wellbeing as just as important as physical health. We're not there yet, but we're moving in the right direction, and it's great to see mental health awareness being championed through media campaigns. The more this happens, the more it enables those who are suffering with mental illnesses - such as depression - to seek help without fear of shame or stigma, which is nothing short of an amazing thing. However...
The increase in the discussion of mental illnesses has made our society hyperaware. This isn't a bad thing, but similar to how googling the symptoms of your cold can end up with the incorrect self-diagnosis of pneumonia, you can also google the symptoms of sadness, and similarly end up misdiagnosing yourself with depression. That isn’t to say that feeling sad isn’t difficult or worthy of care and attention... it’s just not diagnosed depression.
The difficulty lies with the similar definition and symptoms of both normal sadness and clinical depression. Both can cause low mood, changes in appetite, disturbed sleep and a loss of motivation. Clinically, the ‘two-week’ diagnostic criteria is used, meaning that if you experience these symptoms for more than two weeks then you could be diagnosed with depression.
Yet, it's not uncommon for people to have a rough month, where life seems to just not be going your way - whether it's due to money struggles, relationship woes, an unreasonable boss or a lack of sleep. You'd have to be superhuman not to show signs of sadness at a time like this!
If you’ve ever lost someone close to you or have gone through a difficult break up, then you’ll know how long it can take to heal - sometimes months, sometimes years. Sadness is inevitable in situations like this and having a low mood, lack of motivation and having disturbed sleep is a completely natural and normal reaction, and aren't due to illness or dysfunction.
This is not to say that those suffering with difficult life events and subsequent sadness aren't as worthy of love and care as someone who is suffering with clinical depression, however, treating either depression or sadness in the wrong way could prolong the recovery process or even be damaging.
So, how can you tell the difference?
It’s not easy. However, a good place to start is by looking at your environment. Is your job wearing you down? Are there issues in your relationship? Have you lose someone close to you or are you burnt out and exhausted with too much on your plate? If so, the symptoms you’re experiencing might be because of this. Sadness is a normal healthy response when life get tough. But if all your basic needs are being met and you’re supported and loved by your family and friends, yet still feeling low and unmotivated then you may be depressed. Depression can strike at the best of times - you can appear to be thriving, achieving your goals and investing in meaningful relationships yet nothing seems to make you feel happy… or even ok.
Another key indicator of clinical depression is thoughts or actions of self-harm and/or suicide as a form of relief. We’ve all wished away time when life throws us a curve ball, which can be intense and painful, and it's always important to seek help or chat to someone you trust (whether that's a friend or a therapist) when feeling such emotions. But unfortunately, these feelings are an unpleasant part of life.
But self-harm or thoughts of suicide are a different kettle of fish. If someone feels suicidal they’re in a state of no hope and it can be difficult for these individuals to logically break down their emotions, and they see suicide to be the only form of relief. Not everyone with clinical depression will experience suicidal thinking, but it's likely to not be a foreign concept to the patient. Self-harm can be used as a coping mechanism by depressed individuals as the temporary physical pain may provide a moment of relief from their mental turmoil.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or engaging in self-harm please seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255, visiting your local ER or booking an appointment to see your doctor.
To be clear, both sadness and clinical depression are unpleasant experiences and both deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion - neither experiences make you weak or unworthy. They’re simply different, neither better or worse, and may be bested suited to different approaches of treatment. For instance, someone with depression may find yoga or meditation involves to much inward focus which can be scary, and maybe even detrimental. Yet for someone who is experiencing intense sadness, yoga might provide a healthy outlet and some much needed inner stillness.
There is a frequent misconception that to benefit from therapy you have to have a diagnosed mental illness, but this is certainly not true. If you have been struggling with sadness and feel as though your environment is negatively affecting your mental wellbeing, reach out and talk to someone. Book in to see your doctor, as they could help you find a therapist or give you suggestions that could aid your mental wellbeing. Clinical depression may be unresponsive to therapy alone and medication in these cases can provide a life-line. Sometimes a combination of both may be needed. In any case, treatment should always be discussed with a qualified psychiatrist or similar health care professional.
The line between normal sadness and depression is a fine one, and it can be tough to know when to be concerned and when to seek help. As a general rule of thumb, if you have any doubt in your mind and think you might be experiencing depression, book an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. If you’re unsure, consider your environment and lifestyle - would you expect someone else to feel the way you do if they were in your shoes?
Whether you identify yourself with feeling sad or think you are experiencing clinical depression, talk to someone and seek help. Just because you don’t think you’re clinically depressed doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the time, love and compassion of others. However, being able to distinguish between sadness and depression will help you figure out which recovery path is right for you.
If you’re feeling suicidal or just need to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for free at 1-800-273-8255. And for more information on depression and other mental illness, head to Mind's Website.
This blogpost was written by Yoga Teacher, Neuroscience & Neuropsychiatry Student & Mental Health advocate, Ella Stanley.