“Situational depression” may occur following a painful or traumatic situation, such as a bereavement. However, it is not an official medical diagnosis. Current diagnostic criteria do not distinguish depression subtypes based on cause.

The causes of depression are complex. Sometimes, difficult life events can trigger it. Doctors may refer to this as “situational depression.”

Researchers believe a combination of environmental and biological factors play a role in the development of depression. This means a person may be more likely to develop situational depression if they have a family history of mood disorders or other biological risk factors.

This article examines situational depression, including its symptoms and treatments. It also details the differences between clinical and situational depression.

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Situational depression is not an official subtype of depression. However, many factors, including challenging life events, may trigger depressive symptoms.

A person must have at least five of the nine symptoms listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5-TR) to receive a depression diagnosis. These five must include a depressed mood or loss of pleasure or interest in activities.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • feeling chronically sad
  • feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • changes in weight or appetite
  • a loss of pleasure and joy in activities a person once enjoyed
  • sleep issues such as insomnia or oversleeping
  • low energy levels
  • concentration or attention difficulties
  • changes in movement, such as agitation or moving very slowly
  • thoughts of suicide

Shorter-term mood changes directly related to a painful life event may not rise to the level of depression if a person has fewer than five symptoms or they last fewer than 6 months.

Adjustment disorder

Sometimes, doctors may regard situational depression as a possible sign of adjustment disorder. Some may also refer to adjustment disorder with depressed mood as situational depression.

Adjustment disorder refers to a condition in which people experience what a doctor considers an “exaggerated” response to a stressful event. This reaction may be out of step with cultural norms. For example, a person might stop going to work following a breakup.

According to the current criteria, symptoms of adjustment disorder last fewer than 6 months. This is one way doctors distinguish it from depression.

Symptoms of adjustment disorder include:

  • a reaction that healthcare professionals deem disproportionate to the stressor
  • symptoms that begin within 3 months of the stressor
  • significant impairments in functioning, such as difficulty going to work or having relationships

Learn more about the symptoms of depression here.

A doctor may diagnose adjustment disorder if people experience a higher level of difficulty coping with a stressful event than they consider typical. Research into the causes of adjustment disorder is ongoing, although some preliminary studies identify that as symptoms increase, it may culminate into a more severe disorder.

Some research suggests prior trauma may be a risk factor, meaning that people who have experienced traumatic events such as terrorist attacks or other life threatening incidents may be more likely to experience it.

Researchers also do not fully understand the causes of depression. However, certain risk factors may elevate the risk of experiencing it, such as:

Biology and environment may interact such that people at a higher genetic or biological risk of depression may be more likely to experience it when environmental risk factors occur, such as a stressful event.

Doctors may diagnose depression and adjustment disorder based on symptoms. No specific test can diagnose them, though in some cases, a doctor might recommend testing to rule out other conditions, such as dementia or a head injury.

Situational depression is not a medical diagnosis. However, a healthcare professional may tell a person that stressors likely triggered their depression.

Read more about diagnosing depression here.

Although no medication is specifically approved to treat situational depression or adjustment disorder, doctors may still recommend medication as a short-term treatment for depressive or anxiety symptoms related to a specific event. Psychotherapy to address emotions related to the event and the person’s reaction to it may be helpful.

People experiencing situational depression also need compassionate support. They may require accommodations at work or school.

Major depression

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 70% of people with major depressive disorder respond to treatment, but only 30% reach full recovery or remission. A person may need to try several treatments before seeing results.

Options include:

Combining medication and psychotherapy often improves outcomes.

Situational depression is not a medical diagnosis. Instead, it describes the apparent cause of depression.

Clinical depression is the medical diagnosis of depression. Several subtypes exist, but the form people generally refer to when they use the term “clinical depression” is major depressive disorder.

Adjustment disorder with a depressed mood can mean a person feels sadder than doctors may expect after a stressful or momentous event. Some important differences between clinical depression adjustment disorder include the following:

  • People experiencing adjustment disorder do not have enough depressive symptoms to receive a diagnosis of clinical depression. For example, they may have a depressed mood but not have difficulty enjoying things they once did.
  • Adjustment disorder lasts fewer than 6 months, while clinical depression can last indefinitely.
  • A person with adjustment disorder must have experienced an upsetting or stressful event in the 3 months prior to symptoms appearing. While a stressful event can also trigger clinical depression, it is not a necessary prerequisite for the diagnosis.

Diagnostic guidelines for adjustment disorder advise not diagnosing it if another condition better explains symptoms.

If a person meets the diagnostic criteria for depression – which, in the DSM-5-TR, requires the presence of at least five depressive symptoms – the appropriate diagnosis is depression, regardless of the cause or trigger.

Read more about situational vs. clinical depression here.

An adjustment disorder can cause anxiety as its primary symptom or lead to a combination of depression and anxiety. When this happens, a person may experience anxious feelings about the stressor or its consequences, such as financial problems from a job loss.

Situational anxiety is not a medical diagnosis. However, as with depression, a stressful life event may trigger anxiety.

People can become suicidal in response to stressful life events, as a result of depression, and for many other reasons.

Treatment of depression may help lower the risk of suicide.

If a person talks about intentions of suicide, it is important to take this seriously. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends speaking with them privately and listening to what they say without debating the value of life, minimizing their feelings, or giving advice.

It also advises people to avoid judgment, stay with a person, if possible, and limit their access to potential methods of suicide. In a medical emergency, such as following an attempt, call 911.

People can also find more advice below.

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.

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A person should contact a doctor for advice if:

  • They have thoughts of suicide or harming themselves.
  • They feel depressed or unable to be happy.
  • They are experiencing difficulty coping with a traumatic or stressful life event.
  • Anxiety, depression, or other mental health symptoms affect their relationships or quality of life.

Situational depression is not a medical diagnosis. However, various stressful situations can trigger depression. If a person experiences fewer depressive symptoms than with clinical depression and for a shorter duration, they may receive a diagnosis of adjustment disorder with depressed mood.

Both depression and adjustment disorder are treatable, and therapy and other forms of treatment may help after a stressful or traumatic event, even if a person does not have a specific diagnosis. Seeing help or advice early may help people regain a sense of purpose, control, and joy after a challenging time or occurrence.