How do I know whether I have depression versus a “normal” reaction to a problem in life?

How to differentiate between a depression compared to a normal problem in life?

Life events that are stressful can result in normal sadness as well as other symptoms similar to those present during a depressive episode. These symptoms may only last a few days. In the case of bereavement, symptoms may last much longer. Bereavement, however, is a normal process. The duration of bereavement can vary between cultural groups. If, however, symptoms begin to prevent an individual from functioning socially or occupationally and academically and persist beyond a couple of months, especially if suicidal thinking is present, then the possibility of a depressive episode being present is much greater. An assessment by a mental health practitioner would be warranted in such circumstances.

Although depression has a biological basis, stressful life events often trigger its onset. Certain life events are considered more stressful than others. Divorce, death of a spouse, and death of a child are considered very stressful. Additional stressors include marital arguments, a new job, the presence of a serious personal illness, going to college, moving, marriage, and the birth of a child. Sometimes the accumulation of several mild stressors triggers a depressive episode. At one time, it was presumed that there were two types of depression: endogenous (triggered from within, or “biological”) or exogenous (triggered from environmental circumstances). Such a distinction is generally not considered applicable anymore, as most depressions are triggered by environmental circumstances, and are likely dependent on the person’s genetic vulnerability. A comprehensive mental health evaluation typically identifies social stressors associated with the depression. Depending on the nature of the stressors, different treatment modalities may even be recommended (e.g., family therapy, couples counseling, group therapy).

Again, one of the reasons that so many people do not get treated for depression is because of the belief that the depression may be a normal reaction to a given situation. Sadness is a normal emotion and a normal reaction to many situations, but depression is a condition that adversely affects the entire body; left untreated, it can have significant consequences for the affected individual. Sleep and appetite are adversely affected. The body may have reduced ability to fight infection. Depression can make recovery from stroke or heart attack more difficult. A greater risk exists for drug and alcohol abuse, which in turn can worsen depression and further impair functioning. Because of the risks of untreated depression, it is best to seek mental health consultation if there is any question of the possibility of depression.