Everybody feels sad sometimes, and many have argued that this is part of what makes us human. “The word ‘happy,’” psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said, “would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness”. But if you’re experiencing blue feelings that don’t seem to be balanced out by happiness, or you’ve been down in the dumps for a prolonged period of time, you or the people who care about you may be wondering whether you’re experiencing depression rather than normal sadness.
The American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the gold standard used by mental health professionals to diagnose clinical depression. In order to receive a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, a person needs to have been experiencing a depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities for more than two weeks. They must also be experiencing an impairment in their regular functioning (for example, their work, schooling, or social relationships may be suffering), and must present with at least five of the following nine symptoms nearly every day:
Whether or not you meet the above criteria for major depressive disorder, it’s still very important to seek help from a mental health professional such as a psychologist if you’ve been feeling particularly down or having trouble functioning in day-to-day life. Many people worry about hogging psychologists’ time when other people are in more serious need, but in reality, there’s no such thing as being ‘not sick enough’ to seek help.
There are a few other situational variables to take into account if you feel like you might be depressed:
Are you grieving? It’s very common to feel a deep sadness that might seem like depression after you’ve experienced a major trauma or loss such as the death of a friend or family member. Interestingly, the question of whether prolonged depressive symptoms following the death of a loved one can be diagnosed as major depressive disorder is rather controversial among the mental health community. The current DSM guidelines do not include this ‘bereavement exception’ – in other words, you can still be diagnosed with depression even if your depression seems to have been directly caused by a death or other traumatic event. However, the important thing to remember is that clinical standards for depression or any other psychological disorder don’t need to be met in order for you to seek help. It’s normal and healthy to feel pain and grief after the death of a loved one, but if you feel hopeless or your daily functioning is disrupted for a long period of time, you should seek help from a mental health professional.
Is it wintertime? Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is depression that follows a seasonal pattern: symptoms usually worsen in the fall and winter and resolve in the spring and summer. SAD is very common, affecting up to 9.7% of people each year. If you notice that your own mood tends to dip when the days get shorter, there are a few fixes that can help. Try increasing your exposure to natural light, engaging in cardio-based exercise, or talking to your doctor about ‘light therapy’. If you’re more severely affected, though, antidepressant medications and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) have been shown to help.
Are you a new mom? Postpartum depression (PPD) is another form of depression that affects millions of Americans each year; however, many people feel that PPD is discussed much less often than it should be due to the stigma that our culture places on women who do not fit our societal mold of the ‘overjoyed new mom’. Studies have shown that PPD affects up to 10-15% of new mothers in developed countries.
Do you have other health issues? Many people aren’t aware of just how many medical conditions can cause depression as a side effect. Anemia and hypothyroidism are two common examples, and your health care provider may want to rule out any medical conditions (diagnosed or as-yet-undetected) that could be causing you to feel depressed. Some women also experience depression as an unwelcome side effect of taking birth control pills.
Depending on who you are, you may be more or less likely to experience depression. For example, your risk may be slightly elevated if you are female (although this statistic is contested, as women may simply be more likely to seek help), if you have blood relatives with a history of depression, if you experienced childhood trauma, or if you have a history of other mental health problems such as an eating disorder or anxiety. The average age of first onset for depression is 25-29. However, the presence of one or more of these risk factors absolutely does not guarantee that you will become depressed; it’s simply a good idea to be aware if you do have a heightened risk so that you can figure out how best to take care of yourself.
Depression has been both romanticized and stigmatized throughout our cultural history. Today, millions of people suffer from the condition, and tragically, many do so alone. If you think you may be experiencing depression – even if you don’t think you meet the clinical criteria for diagnosis – reach out and seek support from your loved ones and/or help from a mental health professional. You don’t have to endure in silence.