Clinical versus situational depression: What’s the difference?

Published: November 5, 2018 / 0 Comments

Clinical Depression

Despite their similarities situational depression and clinical depression are not the same. They vary in terms of cause, duration and treatment.

Key takeaways

  • Sadness is a natural human emotion experienced by everyone.
  • Situational and clinical depression are different to everyday sadness.
  • Despite their similarities situational depression and clinical depression are not the same.
  • Situational depression and clinical depression differ in cause, duration and treatment.

At some point or another we all experience sadness. It is a completely natural emotion and part of the human experience. Clinical and situational depression are more than just sadness however and recognising the difference between the two is the first step toward getting the
appropriate treatment.

Situational and clinical depression have many similarities and it is easy to confuse the two. Both result in an individual displaying many of the typical symptoms of depression, such as:

  • Hopelessness and questioning if life will ever improve
  • Immense sadness
  • Anxiety, even the simplest tasks become hard to complete due to lack of focus
  • Incessive worrying
  • Frequent crying
  • Changes in sleep patterns (either sleeping too much or insomnia)
  • Changes in eating (over eating or not eating at all or enough)
  • Anger particularly getting angry very quickly over little things
  • Social withdrawal and the avoidance of friends and family
  • Substance abuse or misuse
  • Excessive weight gain or loss over a short period of time
  • Suicidal thoughts.

What is situational depression?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) refers to situational depression as an ‘adjustment disorder with depressed mood’. Simply put, situational depression is often linked to a specific traumatic event or a significant change in a person’s life. Research shows that situational depression typically occurs within three months of the event or change, and triggers can include the following:

  • Loss of a loved one
  • Loss of employment
  • Divorce
  • Serious accidents
  • Major life changes for example retirement or becoming a parent.

While the symptoms of situational depression are similar to those of clinical depression they are significantly different in terms of duration and treatment. On average situational depression goes away within six months or once the person has accepted or learnt to cope with the cause of the depression. If the depression is severely impacting a person’s life short-term medication may be prescribed. Generally, however time and self-care are enough to treat situational depression. Adequate sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and talking to friends all go a long way in the treatment of situational depression.

What is clinical depression?

The DSM-5 refers to clinical depression as ‘major depressive disorder’. In order to be diagnosed with clinical depression the symptoms of depression (see above) must be present for at least two weeks and are not the direct result of an event or significant change. Major depressive disorder belongs to a category of disorders know as mood disorders. Other mood disorders include bipolar disorder, cyclothymia and persistent depressive disorder. This category of disorders is characterised by a serious change in mood.

While time and self-care can assist with the symptoms of clinical depression generally a stronger approach is required. One that often includes medication (possibly long-term) and ongoing psychotherapy. The exact cause of clinical depression is unclear, but research puts it down to a combination of genetic, environmental and psychological factors. It is estimated that genetics is responsible for 40% of the risk. While situational depression usually lifts within six months, the symptoms for clinical depression are usually present for six months or longer.

The main differences between situational depression and clinical depressions are the following:

  • Cause of depression (situational depression can usually be connected to a specific event whereas clinical depression is the result of combination of genetics, psychology and environment).
  • Duration (situational depression generally doesn’t last more than six months. Clinical, if untreated, can last for years).
  • Treatment (clinical depression requires a more aggressive treatment regime often combining psychotherapy, medication and possible hospitalisation).

Both situational depression and chemical depression can be debilitating and while situational depression may not be as long-term it is still very intense. It is impossible for someone suffering from depression to just ‘snap out of it’. Depression regardless of its cause can have devastating consequences and should always be taken seriously.

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