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How Can I Tell the Difference Between Situational and Clinical Depression?

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 8/23/2010

Knowing the difference between situational and clinical depression is extremely important if you or a loved one is suffering from a hopeless malaise and want to determine a course of action to work through it. Here, we’ll define and differentiate these two melancholic maladies.

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    Situational and clinical depression can certainly feel and appear to be the same thing, but there are significant differences that people should be aware of. First, we’ll define the two in detail and then go on to discuss some of the important distinctions that set them apart. On the whole, clinical depression can be much more serious and certainly requires the assistance of trained mental health professionals for treatment. But for the purposes of this article, we will simply explain the symptoms and characteristics of the two so you know what to look for.

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    Situational Depression

    Situational depression is also known as adjustment disorder, so both designations should tip you off to the fact that it’s triggered by tragic, sad, and disquieting events or circumstances in life that cause a person to be depressed and melancholic. But like all situations and adjustment periods, there is eventually an end, or a lessening of the acute strain that has been causing feelings of hopelessness and profound sadness.

    Unlike clinical depression, situational depression (SD) is triggered by an external stress and usually goes away once the person learns how to cope or adapt to whatever happened. Situations that cause it can include the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, being fired from a job, being the victim of a crime, physical trauma/disease/illness, an accident, having a baby, economic hardship, living through a natural disaster, and loneliness.

    A person with this disorder has behavioral and emotional trouble as a result of the external trigger. It can last weeks or months. Aside from the symptoms already mentioned, a person with SD can experience anxiety, frequent crying, worry, headaches, heart palpitations, withdrawal/isolation, absence from commitments such as school or work, destructive behavior, changes in appetite, lack of energy, drug/alcohol abuse, and sleep problems.

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    Clinical Depression

    Dark Skies An important distinction of this serious mental illness lies in just how pervasive and permanent the feelings of uselessness and hopelessness, as well as a terrible feeling that there is no end to them. A person suffering from depression of the clinical variety will see no point in life and disinterest in doing any of the things they enjoyed when the dark specter of depression wasn’t entrenched in their lives. Suicidal ideation can then set in, and a vicious cycle of unnerving thoughts will drag a person deeper and deeper into the mire.

    The other important distinction between situational and clinical depression lies in the likelihood that clinical depression is also the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, something that a person has no control over. Clinically depressed (CD) people may just have brains that are wired differently so that the proverbial bottom can just drop out when there are no external factors that might seem to be causing the despondent feelings. Moreover, everything in life gets painted black so that there is nothing redeeming about it. Even if the person had a happy childhood or other enjoyable periods in their lives, those times can be skewed negatively in their minds or even thought to be nothing more than illusions. And let’s face it, there are many, many facts about the world which are extremely depressing anyway; wars, poverty, the news, and people just be being callous and mean. When a CD person starts looking for dismal evidence, there is no shortage of it. That factor can be prevalent in both situational and clinical depression.

    Unfortunately, there are messages which come from just about everywhere that recommend staying away from people who aren’t always “up" or “optimistic." That may be true for people who choose to be that way without being CD, but when they do have it, and friends and family distance themselves, it only makes it worse. By no means is it easy to deal with a friend or loved one that is depressed all the time, but it is not his or her fault. No one, literally in their right mind, would choose to look at life from such a gloomy perspective anymore than they’d choose to have cancer. Insist that they get help and cultivate your own patience, tolerance, and love to a degree you never thought imaginable.

    New Day I’m not just rattling off signs and symptoms of this dire condition from afar. I, like many of my brothers and sisters in arms, suffered from CD after returning from combat, witnessing first-hand the shallow depths of humanity our species can lower themselves to. And war is always hardest on the innocent noncombatants caught up in the crossfire of mistrust and rage. Life can seem very cheap indeed and in order to do the things we were asked to do, the depths of our own hearts can look very dark also. Way too many soldiers could see no other recourse than to take their own lives, and they do. If that isn’t deeply depressing in itself, I don’t know what is. Overcoming the stigma and asking for help takes guts no matter who you are. You certainly don't have to experience war to feel it. Although it certainly doesn’t seem like it, you are not alone! Many have made it through those eternally darks skies to witness a new and brighter day.

    Images courtesy of the Author: Dan McGoldrick.