Millions of people around the world experience sadness or depression at some point in their lives. However, recognizing the difference between a diagnosis of depression and the emotion of sadness can help a person process both in a healthful way.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) note that depression is one of the most common mental health illnesses in the United States.

Feeling sad is an integral part of depression, but they are not the same. Knowing and understanding the differences can help a person recognize when to seek treatment.

In this article, we help the reader make this distinction and suggest treatment options for depression.

Defining sadness and depression is important for improving wellbeing.

Sadness

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Sadness is a part of depression, but they are different.

Sadness is a normal human emotion that every single person will experience at stressful or somber times.

A number of life events can leave people feeling sad or unhappy. The loss or absence of a loved one, divorce, loss of job or income, financial trouble, or issues at home can all affect mood in a negative way.

Failing an exam, not getting a job, or experiencing other disappointing events can also trigger sadness.

However, a person experiencing sadness can usually find some relief from crying, venting, or talking out frustrations. More often than not, sadness has links to a specific trigger.

Sadness usually passes with time. If it does not pass, or if the person becomes unable to resume normal function, this could be a sign of depression.

If low mood gets worse or lasts longer than 2 weeks, the person should talk to their doctor.

Depression

Depression is a mental disorder that has an overpowering effect on many parts of a person's life. It can occur in people of any gender or age and alters behaviors and attitudes.

In 2015, around 16.1 million people aged 18 years or above in the U.S. had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, accounting for 6.7 percent of all adults in the country.

Symptoms include:

  • feelings of discouragement
  • sadness
  • hopelessness
  • a lack of motivation
  • a loss of interest in activities that the individual once found enjoyable

In severe cases, the person may think about or attempt suicide. They may no longer feel like spending time with family or friends and might stop pursuing their hobbies or feel unable to attend work or school.

If these feelings of doubt last longer than 2 weeks, a healthcare professional may diagnose the person with major depressive disorder (MDD).

Symptoms of MDD include:

  • a daily depressed mood that lasts for most of the day, nearly every day, with noticeable signs of hopelessness and sadness
  • a loss of interest in normal activities for an extended amount of time
  • significant and unintentional weight loss or gain
  • insomnia, sleeplessness, or increased amounts of sleep that affect normal schedules
  • tiredness and low energy
  • feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt on a daily basis
  • inability to concentrate or make decisions
  • recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, or suicide attempts or plans

A doctor would consider a person who experiences any five of these symptoms for longer than 2 weeks to have a medical problem rather than a prolonged experience of sadness.

For a diagnosis of MDD, the doctor should link the symptoms only to depression and not to another medical diagnosis, such as substance abuse or an underlying condition.

Unlike sadness, depression can leave a person struggling to get through their day. Sadness is just one element of depression.

If a person has symptoms of depression for longer than 2 weeks, they should seek professional help.

A physician can help to determine the level of treatment necessary to manage symptoms.

Following diagnosis, possible treatments include medication, counseling, and psychotherapy.

Medications

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Medications and psychotherapy can help people with depression.

Medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of antidepressant.

These function by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical messenger that helps to improve mood.

Examples of SSRIs include citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine, and sertraline.

According to the Mayo Clinic, these drugs can ease the symptoms of depression, although they do carry a risk of adverse side effects.

For example, when people first use antidepressants, these drugs present a risk of symptoms deteriorating before they improve. Family members of the person taking the medication should monitor them closely and seek medical attention if symptoms worsen.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have expressed concern that some SSRIs can cause increased suicidal ideation in younger people and may pose some risk to the fetus if taken during pregnancy.

As a result of this, the drugs carry a black box warning, which is an important notice on the information leaflet outlining the possible dangers of the drugs.

When prescribing SSRIs, prescribers must carefully balance the pros and cons of use.

Psychotherapy and counseling

Psychotherapy involves talking to a trained professional.

A person can pursue psychotherapy on its own or with the support of antidepressant medications. A therapist can help identify problem areas, teach coping mechanisms, and educate an individual about the realities of the condition.

A medical team might admit a person with severe depression to a hospital if they are in immediate danger to themselves, either because of the risk of suicide or lack of ability to care for themselves.

Outpatient facilities and psychotherapy clinics can help with long-term care.

Depression and sadness are linked but are not the same.

Sadness is an emotion that everyone experiences, often after stressful or upsetting life events. Depression is an overpowering and ongoing mental health disorder that can drastically impact on daily living.

Specific triggers will often cause sadness, whereas depression may have no identifiable cause. Sadness is a part of depression but more temporary in nature.

Seek a medical opinion if sadness seems to continue for a disproportionate amount of time. This could indicate the development of depression.