There have been huge leaps in the awareness around mental health and our wellbeing in the last few years, with more people sharing their stories and experiences, taboo topics being approached in high places and keywords like ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’ being used more and more.
This is great! Really? Yes! It means we’re breaking down the stigma around mental health and we’re becoming more open to accepting that many people will experience a mental health problem at some point - in fact, 1 in 4 of us will. And stigma only prevents people from seeking support and treatment - so what’s the issue?
The language issue
Increased awareness and speaking out isn’t the only thing that’s happened, the language is becoming more familiar, but also less accurate. Many of us will have been perpetrators in this, saying “I’m so depressed” when we mean “I’m having a rough day”, or “this is depressing” when we really mean “this is flippin’ hard work”.
Sadness or feeling blue is a perfectly normal emotion that everyone will experience from time to time (and it can totally suck!), but there is a huge difference between feeling sad and having depression. When we use the language incorrectly we risk devaluing the experiences of those with depression - possibly even our own experiences! This causes people with depression to justify and fight for support and treatment and to be heard by others, more so than they already do, which can be traumatic, sometimes scary and possibly really confusing for someone.
So, what is the difference?
Sadness is a normal reaction to loss, disappointment, and other difficult situations - even realising we’re out of bread when we’re craving hot buttery toast in an evening can cause our mood to take a dive. We experience varying degrees of sadness, which means we can feel and behave differently and it can last for different periods of time.
"The good news is, sadness is a temporary emotion, just like happiness, anger or fear." Grace McMahon, Beingwell Life Coach
We can feel down for a couple of hours or days - and it’s often triggered by something (whether we know it or not). We might have received some bad news or had plans cancelled that we were looking forward to, we might even be hungry, tired or stressed which can also cause our mood to plummet. But this passes, and we feel a little cheerier.
Depression, on the other hand, is not an emotion, it is a mental health condition that can have severe impacts on someone’s life. Sadness is often felt in those with depression, but there are a number of other symptoms that come with it, which can include;
Feelings of sadness, despair and worthlessness.
Feeling helpless or hopeless.
A lack of interest in things once enjoyed - hobbies, tv shows, socialising, etc.
Feeling numbness - people with depression can describe feeling nothing, indifferent, or switched off to things around them.
Suicidal thoughts or actions, as well as self-harm.
We might be reading this thinking, ‘Woah that’s heavy,’ but we’d be right to think that. Depression is a complex mental health condition, not a temporary emotion like sadness.
How do we know if we’re sad or depressed?
Usually, we can read our own emotions - sometimes it’s difficult to recognise why but we’re pretty good at knowing what we’re feeling. The similarities between the two, though, might cause some confusion. So here are some ways to tell them apart in ourselves;
In the moment
The emotions that depression can cause us to feel are normal, but how we feel them may not be. Depression doesn’t just cause us to feel sad about sad things, we can begin to feel negatively towards things we used to enjoy, seeing friends and family we love or even just feeling really down with no apparent cause.
If we’re feeling sad, we might experience these thoughts or feelings in the moment - not fancying that coffee date we arranged today anymore, can’t really be bothered to clean the kitchen even though it needs a good scrub, or not fussed about the TV show we’ve been howling at only the day before. That’s normal, our mood fluctuates but when these feelings begin to impact our days regularly, we might be pushing onto a scale of depression.
Ability to function as usual
We all have days from time to time when things feel more difficult than usual, it’s a struggle to stay focused in a Zoom meeting, the thought of taking the dog out in the rain is less than appealing, or cooking another meal only for the kids to turn their noses up at the broccoli again doesn’t seem worth it. This is quite normal, just as our mood fluctuates, our ability to function can too. Maybe we had a rough night's sleep, are hungry (hangry!) or a little overwhelmed by the prospect of everything we’re dealing with right now.
Depression can impact our ability to function as usual - sometimes daily responsibilities can’t be upheld, work demands might feel unmeetable, we might be distracted or feel foggy, or even just find it difficult to get up in the morning. Although many people with depression can function fine - possibly with the help of medication or therapy - when our thoughts, feelings and behaviours affect our ability to function as usual we may be facing a problem.
On average we have something like 6,000 thoughts a day - not all of which are sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, right? We can feel clouded by misery or swamped by sadness but we can usually find a way out using our coping strategies; by finding joy or laughter in something else, or maybe we’re able to let it float away or do something to cheer ourselves up.
But these feelings really linger with depression, it’s rarely a case of cheering up and moving on. Even when we’re laughing there’s a cloud hovering over us, even if we’re functioning as usual or singing along to the radio, there’s often a dull note in the back of the mind, dampening our joy.
Reality reminder: depression is complex, and it’s important to speak up and seek help if we think it’s affecting us. It’s equally as important to be mindful of how we speak about our thoughts and feelings so as not to devalue other’s experiences. It can be tricky to tell the difference, it can be pretty rubbish to feel down, but if we’re not experiencing a mental health concern, let's try not to use language that might imply we are.