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The Difference Between Sadness and Depression

Sadness is a normal part of the human emotional spectrum—we all experience it from time to time. When we lose a loved one, go through a breakup or watch one of those heartbreaking ASPCA commercials, sadness is a typical reaction and a healthy part of the emotional process. But there is a difference between healthy sadness and the often-debilitating symptoms of depression.

Sadness is just one symptom of depression

For the 6.8 percent of U.S. adults who have a major depressive disorder each year, sadness is only one of the many symptoms they will experience. The difference between sadness and depression can be easy to miss, especially when you consider the number of people who misuse the word “depression” or say, “I’m depressed” to describe the everyday “blues.” But sadness is not a depressive disorder.

Depression affects a person’s emotions, thinking, behavior and physical well-being. Someone who is feeling sad might cry for a while, spend some time alone, then get back to their normal lives within a short span of time. But a person with clinical depression will have symptoms like loss of interest in activities, withdrawal from others, difficulty sleeping or a drastic change in appetite that last for two weeks or more. They may even have thoughts of death or suicide.

Signs of depression you can see

Though people with depression often hide their symptoms from those around them, there are some signs you can look for to know when a person in your life may need help.

A person who has depression may:

  1. Move, think or speak slowly, making conversation and other interactions difficult.
  2. Stop caring about personal hygiene and grooming.
  3. Gain or lose weight in response to changes in appetite.
  4. Become agitated easily, or cry uncontrollably.

But depression is not always marked by extreme displays of emotion. Some people with severe depression may become emotionally unresponsive—appearing “numb” or “beyond tears.” They may not feel anything at all. And this lack of emotion can be just as painful as prolonged sadness, anxiety or anger. Just because someone isn’t crying all the time doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.

How can I help someone with depression?

For people living with depression, early intervention is key. Those who have one episode of depression are prone to subsequent episodes and may fall into depression more easily with each subsequent episode. Preventing this pattern from occurring can start with you.

If you think someone you know is experiencing depression and in need of help, approach the person about your concerns. Make sure the person is ready and available to talk, is in a comfortable environment and doesn’t feel pressured. Ask how you can help. Tell the person what you’ve noticed and express genuine concern. If the person is receptive to help and is not at risk for suicide or harm, it’s helpful to know what resources are available in your community and what questions you should ask to best provide initial help and support.

Mental health challenges affect everyone and we all have a responsibility to support one another.

To learn an action plan for helping someone with depression or another mental health or substance use problem, find a Mental Health First Aid course near you and get trained.