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Am I Depressed or Just Sad?

Laura Bogart's work has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Tin House, SPIN, Indiewire, GOOD, and Refinery 29 (among other publications). She has also worked in health care communications.

How do you know if you have clinical depression versus being really sad?

Many a soul singer has painted “the blues” as a profound sadness without recourse or remedy — the kind of existential numbness that makes getting through the day physically taxing, if not painful. Though these bards of the roadhouse may speak to a feeling that many of us know well, there are significant differences between sadness or “the blues” and clinical depression.

More: Talking About Depression Is Good — Investing in Mental Health is Better

For Emily Griffin, a mental health therapist at Clarity Through Counseling in Germantown, Maryland, the primary distinction between a bout of sadness and the kind of depression that necessitates a diagnosis and treatment is that depression can severely impair the sufferer, “socially, occupationally or educationally.”

Even though depression is often stereotyped as a prolonged sense of sorrow, depression encompasses a myriad of difficult feelings and symptoms — like anger, grief, shame, loneliness, a desire to seclude and isolate oneself, indecisiveness and an inability to concentrate. Griffin adds that depression can be so catastrophic because a person’s “symptoms affect one or more of those areas of their life to the degree to which they are not able to keep a job, make friends, choose healthy friends or perform at a developmentally appropriate educational level.” Bluntly put, you lose all sense not only of joy, but of purpose in life. Think of it this way: Sadness is like sitting at the bottom of a cold well, but depression is like being lost in a dark, damp cavern.

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Still, sadness is nothing to sneeze at. According to Dr. Leesha M. Ellis-Cox, board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist and medical director of the Western Mental Health Center Inc., “Sadness is a common and often expected emotional response that almost all have felt or will feel when faced with difficult or negative circumstances such as demise of a relationship or marriage, diagnosis of cancer, death of a loved one, [a] bad accident or facing job loss." Sadness is often temporary or may persist but does not interfere with an individual’s ability to function and move forward in his or her life, she adds. However, if your feelings persist beyond two weeks, Ellis-Cox recommends that you check in with a medical professional.

Though sadness isn’t considered to be as serious as depression, it can still have powerful consequences to your health. Patti Sabla, a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Maui, insists that sadness may compel people to make unhealthy decisions, like not sleeping or overeating. Sabla recommends that people who are finding their world painted blue reconnect with friends and other positive influences (like favorite hobbies, books, movies and TV shows)." People with depression, however, “may require medication (typically SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like Prozac) and psychotherapy to address the condition. Therapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy can be very beneficial for someone with depression, she adds.

MoreDepression More Likely to Cause Cardiac Arrest Than High Blood Pressure

If you suspect that you might be suffering from depression (or find your feelings of sadness too difficult to manage), please seek medical help. You can contact your primary care physician or contact a hotline for people in crisis.

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