Situational Depression Versus Clinical Depression

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Depression is not a sign of weakness.
— Anonymous

When discussing depression, sometimes it is important to establish a distinction between situational depression and clinical depression, as treatment may be different for each. 

Situational Depression

During our lives, we experience so many different situations. Some of these experiences stretch our ability to cope. Situational depression is a short-term depression that can occur after a situation where we find ourselves unable to cope. At times, doctors will refer to situational depression as adjustment disorder. Situational depression can follow traumatic changes in your normal life. These changes can include:

  • Loss of a job
  • A break-up
  • Financial losses
  • Divorce
  • Retirement
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Losing a home
  • The death of a relative or close friend.

In addition to what has been listed, situational depression can occur when you haven’t yet processed and adapted to changes that are brought about by these situations. Situational depression can sometimes form following situations that overwhelm your normal coping mechanisms. These can include surviving a flood or other major disaster, experiencing a major illness, surviving a life-threatening accident, or even marriage or the birth of a child.

Symptoms of Situational Depression

A person suffering from situational depression may have symptoms that appear identical to someone suffering from clinical depression; however, there are key differences between these two disorders. Consequently, there are key differences in the effects of the disorder and the treatment. Studies show that most people with situational depression develop symptoms within roughly 90 days following the event(s) that triggers the disorder. Symptoms can include:

  • Listlessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Crying bouts
  • Unfocused anxiety
  • Unrelenting worry
  • Loss of concentration
  • Withdrawal from work, leisure activities or hobbies
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Suicidal thoughts.

Treatment of Situational Depression

Often, if you take certain steps, mild cases of situational depression will disappear on their own. Some of the steps that can be taken to treat your situational depression include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet  
  • Establishing sleep routines
  • Talking about your situation with close friends or loved ones
  • Discussing your situation with a counsellor
  • Joining a support group
  • Participating in a hobby you love
  • Participating in other pleasurable leisure activities

If, after taking steps to try to treat your situational depression, your symptoms continue to disrupt your life, or your situational depression lasts for an extended period of time, it is important that you seek help from a trained psychotherapist, who can help with treatment. Some people with situational depression can continue to experience symptoms for longer than six months. This is common when another emotionally or physically traumatic event occurs during the normal recovery period. It is very important to consult with a medical professional, if your symptoms continue, as you may choose to treat your situational depression with medications or psychotherapy.

Clinical Depression

Clinical depression is severe, persistent depression, also known as major depression or major depressive disorder. Clinical depression is not the same as situational depression. To diagnose clinical depression, doctors will use the symptom criteria for major depressive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Clinical depression can affect both genders and people of any age, including children.

Symptoms of clinical depression may include:

  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
  • Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
  • problems in relationships with others
  • inability to perform day-to-day activities, such as work, school or social activities.

Treatment of Clinical Depression

People with mild cases of clinical depression can benefit from psychotherapy. They may also consider the use of antidepressant medications to treat their depression, or, in serious cases, a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants. In addition, some people with severe symptoms of clinical depression require hospitalization in a psychiatric facility, or require treatment with a form of controlled electrical stimulation known as electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.