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What’s the Difference between Sadness and Depression?
A while back I discussed the difference between grief and depression in which I asserted that the symptoms of depression, while similar to grief, can be differentiated. Garden variety grief isn’t an illness; it isn’t depression.
Similarly, sadness is not an illness and is not depression either. When I describe depression—which, of course, contains profound sadness—people have a hard time individuating it in their minds from sadness, but they are quite different.
Sadness is a Normal, Human Emotion
Sadness is something we all experience; it’s a normal, human emotion. We experience it when we experience something unpleasant in life—a loss, a disappointment, and so on. Sadness is what happens when you get a divorce. Sadness is what happens when you’re stood up for a date. Sadness is what happens when normal events occur in ways that are hurtful. Sadness can occur at very regular intervals in our everyday lives.
However, sadness is not constant. Sadness is not an every-moment-of-every-day thing like depression is. Sadness relents, depression doesn’t. Sadness is interrupted by periods of laughter; depression often can’t be budged by even the most talented comedian. Sadness may usher in negative thoughts but it does not propel a person into a place of suicidal ideation. Sadness may reduce our ability to enjoy life but it doesn’t destroy it all together. Sadness may last for what feels like a long period of time, but it does not remain constant for weeks or months. Sadness doesn’t produce significant weight changes or prolonged periods of sleep changes. Sadness doesn’t include psychosis.
In short, depression is so far beyond sadness that comparing the two is almost laughable. Sadness is painful and it sucks, but it is normal and it does pass. Depression is beyond painful. It’s life-altering, it is not normal, and often does not resolve itself without medical intervention.
Medicalization of Normal, Human Emotion
It’s important to understand the difference between sadness and depression because it clarifies which is an illness and which is not. It’s important to realize that depression is not a medicalization of normal, human emotion. Depression is a real illness. It is very different from sadness. And skilled clinicians can tell the difference between the two.
People with Depression are Not Just “Sad”
Just as cell growth is normal in a person, we call out of control cell growth an illness—we call it cancer. Depression is exactly the same. Depression is when a normal, human emotion gets out of control to the point where it is no longer normal. Considering someone with an illness merely to be “sad” is an insult to that person and minimizes an illness that takes thousands of lives every year. And we can’t afford to do that, lest the illness take one more.