There are important differences between sadness, grief, and depression. Each one calls for a different response.
Sadness is a normal, healthy part of life. Many things cause it: disappointments, losing something important, and self-critical thoughts, to name a few. We often want to just get rid of sadness, or to avoid it by distracting ourselves. Unfortunately, this makes it last longer and even makes the problem worse. The best thing we can do when we get sad is to let ourselves feel it and know that it will pass on its own.
Grief is also a normal part of life. When someone important to us dies, we go through a process of grieving that generally lasts up to a year or more. The terrible sadness we feel shows how important that person was to us. If we don’t push grief away, it will also pass, and eventually we will no longer feel so empty. It is important to have caring people to talk with, and support groups can be especially helpful. In the Ann Arbor area, Arbor Hospice provides groups and workshops for adults, adolescents, and younger children who have lost loved ones.
Depression is a medical illness. Even though it feels almost just like sadness or grief, the brain and brain chemistry are involved in a very different way. Unlike sadness or grief, depression does not go away naturally. Someone with depression may feel worse when well-meaning loved ones say to cheer up, because this person is biologically unable to do so. Medication may help, and is often used only temporarily. It is not a “crutch,” but more like taking medication for thyroid conditions, high blood pressure, or other medical problems.
During a period of sadness, it can be hard to tell if one is experiencing sadness, grief, or depression. Very generally speaking, sadness comes and goes, grief is lessened when one is around family or friends, and depression is constant. For some ideas on how to feel better, this article on what to do about a blue mood may be helpful.
If a low mood persists, especially if there is no apparent reason for it, or if you or a loved one is troubled by ongoing, seemingly insurmountable problems, it is a good idea to consult a therapist. I am experienced helping people deal with these types of problems — please call me.