Everyone feels sadness, which is a natural human emotion. However, clinical depression is a serious condition that can profoundly impact every part of a person’s life.

Situational and clinical depression are similar, but they are not the same. Recognizing the differences between these types of depression is the first step toward getting help.

Medically, situational depression is an “adjustment disorder with a depressed mood.” It often resolves with time, and talking about the problem can ease recovery.

Clinical depression, known medically as a “major depressive disorder,” can develop if the individual does not recover. This is a more severe mental health condition.

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Situational depression is a short-term form of depression resulting from a traumatic event or change in a person’s life.

An adjustment disorder with a depressed mood is another name for this emotional state.

Triggers can include:

  • a divorce
  • loss of a job
  • the death of a loved one
  • financial hardship
  • caring for an ill relative
  • other major life changes, such as retirement

Situational depression stems from a difficulty in coming to terms with dramatic life changes. Recovery is possible once an individual can come to terms with a new situation. This may require support and treatment.

For instance, following the death of a parent, it may take a while before a person can accept that their parent is no longer alive. Until a person reaches acceptance, they may feel unable to move on with their life. Some people may need to attend a grief support group or speak with a therapist.

Clinical depression is also known as major depression or a major depressive disorder. It is a more chronic condition that is severe enough to interfere with daily function.

The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) classifies clinical depression as a mood disorder.

While a specific cause for clinical depression is unknown, disturbances in the levels of certain chemicals — known as neurotransmitters — may be to blame.

However, other factors are likely to play a role, including:

  • genetic factors, which may influence an individual’s response to an experience or event
  • major life events, which can trigger negative emotions, such as anger, disappointment, or frustration
  • alcohol and drug dependence also have links to depression

Depression can also alter a person’s thought processes and bodily functions.

Some key differences between situational and clinical depression will determine the type of treatment a person needs and the severity of their condition.

No type of depression is more “real” than another. Both can present significant challenges and threats to their well-being.

However, knowing which type of depression is at the root of their persistent, negative mood can support their recovery.

Differences in symptoms

Symptoms of situational depression can include:

  • listlessness
  • feelings of hopelessness and sadness
  • sleeping difficulties
  • frequent episodes of crying
  • unfocused anxiety and worry
  • a loss of concentration
  • withdrawal from normal activities, as well as from family and friends
  • suicidal thoughts

On the other hand, clinical depression is usually more severe than situational depression.

It can cause physical and psychological symptoms, including:

  • a depressed mood
  • a loss of interest in hobbies or activities
  • changes in sleep habits, including sleeping too much or not enough
  • feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • fatigue or low energy levels
  • restlessness or slowed movements
  • changes in appetite or body weight
  • thoughts about suicide or death, or a suicide attempt

Clinical depression may also be associated with symptoms like pain, headaches, and digestive issues, which often occur without a physical cause and do not improve, even with treatment.

Some people with clinical depression can also experience delusions, hallucinations, and other psychotic disturbances. These do not generally occur in people with situational depression.

To help support your mental well-being and that of your loved ones during this difficult time, visit our dedicated mental health hub to discover more research-backed information.

In most cases, situational depression is only short-term. Mild cases of situational depression often resolve without active treatment. However, some strategies can help a person reduce the effects of situational depression.

Lifestyle changes

A few helpful lifestyle changes include:

  • getting regular exercise
  • eating a well-balanced diet
  • keeping regular sleeping habits
  • talking with loved ones
  • joining a support group
  • taking up a hobby or leisure activity

Therapy

People who find it difficult to cope with overwhelming stressors might wish to consult with a psychotherapist. If the issue revolves around family dynamics or difficulties, family therapy is another option.

Such therapy may not need to last as long as it might in cases of clinical depression. Clinical depression is also likely to require a combination treatment of psychotherapy or psychological counseling and medication.

Medication

A primary care physician can prescribe medication or make a referral to a mental health professional if they feel that the individual requires this level of care.

People with severe situational depression might receive a temporary prescription for medications, including antidepressants or antianxiety drugs, which a doctor may taper off as soon as the person is feeling better.

On the other hand, clinical depression can last for a long time. A person with clinical depression will not necessarily need to take medication indefinitely, but they may require taking it longer as part of a long-term, in-depth treatment plan.

Hospitalization

In severe clinical and situational depression cases — especially if a person tries to self-harm — a person may need to stay in the hospital or attend an outpatient treatment program until their symptoms improve.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Click here for more links and local resources.

A doctor may diagnose a person with situational depression if symptoms occur in response to a specific traumatic event or stressor.

The symptoms will also usually cause significant impairments in the person’s social life or ability to function normally and do not meet the criteria for another mental disorder.

Unlike clinical depression, mild, situational depression is usually only short-term and often improves with time, even without treatment.

In fact, according to the DSM-5 and International Classification of Diseases 11th revision (ICD-11), symptoms of situational depression usually emerge within 1–3 months of the stressor and resolve within 6 months, unless the stressor persists for a longer amount of time.

On the other hand, to get a formal diagnosis of clinical depression, a person must meet the criteria outlined in the DSM-5.

A person must show five or more symptoms from a specific list of criteria, over a 2-week period, for most of nearly every day.

The symptoms should be severe enough that they substantially reduce the person’s ability to perform regular duties and routines. At least one of the symptoms must be a depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure.

Here are a few common questions about situational and clinical depression.

At what point does feeling sadness or grief about a life event become clinical depression?

When the depressed mood is beginning to have a serious negative impact on important areas of functioning, such as work, school, or other aspects of day-to-day life, a person has cause for concern.

Many people experiencing an adjustment disorder may feel sad but generally will notice some improvements a few days after the significant life event. This is generally not the case with people experiencing a major depressive disorder.

Can situational depression lead to clinical depression?

In many cases, situational depression improves over time and usually doesn’t last longer than 6 months. If symptoms don’t resolve within 6 months, a doctor may reassess symptoms to determine whether clinical depression or another mental disorder may be present.

What are other types of depression?

In addition to situational depression and clinical depression (or major depressive disorder), there are several other types of depression, each of which may differ based on the cause, symptoms, and treatment.

Some examples include postpartum and perinatal depression, persistent depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and psychotic depression.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 21 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2020.

Situational depression occurs after life-altering events, but clinical or major depression has a range of causes and is a longer-term condition. With a healthful lifestyle and the right treatment plan, both forms of depression can be manageable.

Support groups and help or depression hotlines, such as The Samaritans, can offer a listening ear and useful advice and information. You can call them at any time at (212) 673-3000.