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Thanks to the advent of the Internet, more of us know about mental illnesses, their symptoms and causes, as well as their treatment. This increased awareness has helped millions of people better understand themselves and get help when it’s needed. However, there is still plenty of room for misinterpretation. Is your situation caused by nervousness or an anxiety disorder? Are we confusing shyness with social anxiety?This is especially true when it comes to the emotions surounding loss. What’s the difference between depression and grief?

What is Depression?

Depression is a diagnosable condition. More than a prolonged feeling of sadness, depression presents with symptoms like:

  • Physical disruptions to sleep, appetite, concentration, and energy
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Losing interest in activities that once excited you
  • Mood swings, apathy, irritability, or social isolation
  • Ruminating on thoughts
  • Focused on dark or even suicidal thoughts
  • Harsh self-criticism

Depression is very common. About 7 percent of Americans have been diagnosed and it’s the leading cause of disability. Depression is also quite treatable — if we identify it and seek help. However, stigmas still exist. So do myths and misconceptions. What depression “looks like” may not reflect how it feels. In a self-help society that stresses self-reliance and independence, we may feel ashamed asking for help when we need it.

To make things more daunting, there are many different forms of depression. Examples include Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Postpartum Depression, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Depression of all types doesn’t always have a clear starting point but when it does, that starting point can relate to grief, loss, and mourning.

What is Grief?

There are many causes of grief but let’s use a common source: the death of a loved one. When mourning, you may first experience intense shock and overwhelming sadness. Over time, this grief can morph into symptoms like, well… all the symptoms listed above for depression.

There lies the rub. Each of us grief differently. We also live in a culture that focuses precious little time on dealing with such losses. Instead, we serve up platitudes like:

  • They’re in a better place
  • Be strong
  • At least they’re not suffering anymore
  • It’s time to move on

Needless to say, none of this is very helpful. If we don’t truly feel and process our feelings, the grief can become “complicated.” From there, it can be a slippery slope to a depressive disorder.

Can Grief Become a Form of Depression?

In general, grief comes and goes in waves and, eventually, we accept a new reality. Depression is more persistent and cannot be reasoned with. However,  Complicated Bereavement Disorder is the name for a condition that becomes chronic and thus, debilitating. Just like depression. As many as 20 percent of grievers experience loss this way and are unable to find a resolution without help.

Therefore, while many similarities between grief and depression exist, it’s crucial we do the work to differentiate them. The better we understand what we feel and why, the quicker we can get help that heals.

But What if We Can’t Tell the Difference?

At the deepest level, you may not be focused on blurred lines of medical definitions. You’re in pain. You’re in a bad place. The time has come to address the suffering and get some help. Reaching out to an experienced counselor is an excellent first step. This choice will put you on track to not only pursue recovery but also, to better understand what’s going on. Why are you suffering? Therapy offers us the opportunity to discover the sources of our pain. Once identified as, perhaps, depression or grief, this condition can be properly addressed.

It’s important to remember that you’re not alone. You don’t have to figure out cause and effect by yourself. Regular therapy sessions can support the healing and knowledge you need to move forward.

To find out more about how I treat depression, click here.
About the Author
Kate Kendrick is a psychotherapist and relationship counselor in private practice in Longmont, Colorado.  Kate helps people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and existential issues.  She also specializes in helping couples and individuals deal with relationship problems.