As severe as it can be at times, depression is not always easy to spot. Some people manage to go through a great amount of effort to hide their depression, to the point that some who might not know them so well would be surprised to find out that someone “so happy” could be struggling with extreme sadness. At other times, it’s a bit more obvious that something is wrong – but that doesn’t always mean the person you’re worried about is struggling with a depression.
Knowing whether or not someone is depressed is not something the average person should be able to decide. Officially, only a psychiatrist can make a proper diagnosis for depression and prescribe the right treatment. However, knowing the warning signs can help you identify if a friend or loved one is depressed, or if their behavior is something you shouldn’t necessarily worry too much about.
What Depression Is and Is Not
We need to be very careful not to misdiagnose sadness as depression. It’s perfectly normal and acceptable to be sad, and we all need to process certain events and occasions through prolonged periods of sadness and sorrow, before moving on and figuring out where to go from there.
A healthy human life is composed of a healthy mix of emotions. Too much of anything is no good, and too much sadness can be destructive. But when is sadness the result of mental illness, and when is it a matter of circumstance? To figure that out, it’s important to separate sadness and grief from depression, and figure out what it means to be diagnosed with a mood disorder.
Depression is a mental disorder characterized by two or more weeks spent in a consistently low mood, with no real cause. It does not count if someone is sad for two weeks following their friend or loved one’s passing – grief is normal, even if it takes several weeks. But that doesn’t mean some forms of grief shouldn’t be a matter concern. If you know someone who has been consistently sad – unable to be cheered up – for weeks and weeks, chances are that they may be struggling with complicated grief.
About 7-10 percent of bereaved individuals struggle with complicated grief, which can be seen either as a syndrome or a diagnosis of extreme sadness triggered by the loss of a loved one. Complicated grief is similar to trauma, wherein the emotional scarring of losing someone so close to you can leave you in a prolonged and extreme state of mourning, one that your mind cannot move past.
Grief eventually ends. While the “five stages” aren’t always accurate, they do portray the gist of the grieving process – it begins, it is processed, and then it ends. As blunt as it may be, we are made to overcome sadness. But dwelling on it for too long is a sign that something is wrong.
Depression is something else entirely. Not necessarily triggered in any form, depression begins and occurs entirely within the brain, often without external stimuli. Someone who is depressed does not really have a cause to be depressed – there’s nothing that should make them sad, yet they feel sad, nonetheless.
There are many reasons why depression develops in some, and not in others. Some people are born with a predisposition towards depression, with subtle differences in the brain causing some people to simply feel melancholy when they shouldn’t. More extreme forms of depression are coupled by feelings of intense self-loathing, a strong will towards self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Milder forms of depression can manifest as a constantly low mood hanging over someone, with views of pessimism, nihilism, social withdrawal, and occasional irritability.
Sometimes, depression doesn’t begin in the brain but in other parts of the body. Certain endocrine conditions can cause or worsen a case of depression, including thyroid problems and certain cancers. Depression can last a lifetime, or just a few months.
If your loved one is broken up about something tragic, they are not experiencing a depression. If your loved one is so distraught that they’ve considered suicide, then they certainly need help – the pain they’re going through may be traumatic enough that some part of them thinks the best solution is not to work through it, but to end life completely. However, grief and sadness are not something to be scared of, rather, they’re normal in life.
Recognizing Depression in Others
“Prolonged sadness of more than two weeks without an obvious cause” is probably too little information for anyone to really figure out if their loved one is depressed or a normal kind of sad. However, there are a few ways you can help figure out whether your loved one or friend is going through a serious depression, or some form of grief or sadness that they simply need time to work through.
- Erratic sleeping schedule
- They can’t be cheered up
- Mentioning death and suicide often and repeatedly
- No appetite
- Can’t function at work, struggling to do chores
Some other symptoms are often normal in the face of certain forms of sadness, like having a low sex drive, being irritable, losing interest in old hobbies, or generally not spending as much time out with friends. Some decrease in performance at work is also to be expected, and it’s normal to struggle a little bit with getting through your daily responsibilities when sad. But if your friend or loved one is unable to work properly for weeks, struggles to get anything down, barely sleeps or sleeps constantly, and often talks about ending it all, then there’s a good chance that they need serious help.
Getting a Diagnosis
The first step to getting help is figuring out what’s wrong. A psychiatric professional can help give you a clearer picture of what you, your friend, or your loved one is going through, as well as prescribe a possible depression treatment plan, and give you a general idea of what you will be doing moving forward.
Supporting someone with depression takes a lot of compassion, patience, and understanding, and you will have to spend some time learning what it means to be depressed, and what you should be doing to help out.