Although depression is no longer uncommon among young adults, its diagnosis can still result in unwarranted stigma and indifference. With an overwhelming amount of stressors pressuring children and young adults today—at school, from peers, in broken family environments, from the media and culture—understanding depression, particularly situational depression, is vital.
What is Situational Depression?
A Clear and Simple Situational Depression Definition
Situational depression is what its name suggests—depression resulting from a certain situation.
Statistics reveal that situational depression is common, especially among young people: 10% of adults have struggled with situational depression, and up to 30% of adolescents.
In contrast to clinical depression, situational depression is a type of depression that typically develops within three months following a specific demanding, traumatic, or disheartening circumstance. Situational depression is also known as an “adjustment disorder”—an individual has an increasingly difficult time coping with or adapting to a changed situation.
Situational depression is an intense bout of despair that is usually alleviated when the triggering situation changes or an individual adjusts to the change. Although situational depression may not be considered true depression by some, “mild depression” would be a mischaracterization. For situational depression sufferers, the feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and misery are very real, and far from insignificant.
–caused by: specific life-changing circumstances
–medication may not be best method of treatment
Situational Depression vs. Clinical Depression
Situational depression differs greatly from clinical depression, which is probably the type that first comes to mind in a discussion regarding this condition. Clinical depression is a chronic ailment that frequently results from chemical imbalances in the brain, but can also stem from a particular genetic makeup, painful experiences, or melancholy temperaments.
Although the symptoms of clinical and situational depression can be similar, clinical depression is not alleviated from a change in circumstances. Even if certain stressors are removed from an environment, a sufferer of clinical depression may still not be able to overcome the overwhelming negative emotions and thoughts. Clinical depression can be long-lasting and far-reaching in its symptoms and consequences, and is often best treated with medication, as well as psychotherapy.
–caused by: chemical imbalances in the brain, genetic makeup, particular temperament
–best treated with medication and psychotherapy
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists specific criteria for situational depression that differ from clinical depression. These criteria are important to remember for recognizing the crucial distinctions between clinical and situational depression.
DSM Criteria for Situational Depression:
–symptoms manifest within three months of triggering event or stressor(s)
–experiencing more stress than a certain situation would reasonably merit or experiencing stress that causes behavioral problems
–decrease in intensity or elimination of symptoms six months after triggering event or stressor(s)
–symptoms are unique to triggering event or stressor(s) and do not result from another diagnosis
Causes of Situational Depression
Situational depression can be caused by a variety of stressors or events (both positive and negative) of varying intensity, including:
–relationship breakups, divorce
–death of loved one
–completion of a goal, like college graduation or work promotion
–moving to a different home, different city, changing schools
–transitioning to different life stages (childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood)
–loss of job, unemployment
–experience of a natural disaster
–experience of war, crime, or violence
This list of causes is not exhaustive, but demonstrates the diversity of circumstances that may trigger situational depression. Situational depression is strongly related to the experience of severe stress, whether that stress is good or bad. For an individual who develops situational depression, a particular circumstance is too overwhelming and he or she cannot cope well. Coping, in fact, becomes mentally taxing and seemingly impossible.
Males and females are equally at risk for developing situational depression, and even though clinical depression may seem a more serious diagnosis, situational depression, if ignored or untreated, can lead to clinical depression.
For teens, situational depression could easily develop from mom and dad’s divorce, a fight with a friend or peer at school, a move to another city, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, an injury that terminates participation in a sport, and much more.
According to the Mayo Clinic, an adolescent is at a higher risk for developing more serious mental illnesses if he or she already struggles with a chronic adjustment disorder with significant behavioral issues. Teenagers and adults are at a higher risk for developing situational depression if they have experienced a particularly stressful or traumatic childhood. In any case, there is much hope for recovery from situational depression, no matter what the difficult circumstances may be.
Symptoms of Situational Depression
Situational depression symptoms are many and varied. Because situational depression is a stress-related condition, symptoms are often related to the inability to cope with the extreme pressure the sufferer perceives from his or hers changed circumstances.
Situational depression will manifest itself in different ways, depending on the individual. The following list is not comprehensive, but will help to identify situational depression:
–bouts of crying
–somatic symptoms: body aches, headaches, stomachaches
An important fact to note about situational depression is that behavioral issue symptoms are especially prevalent among teens, although not limited to them. Examples of behavioral problems include:
–fighting with peers, family, spouses
–isolating oneself from friends and family
–ignoring bills or other responsibilities
–reckless conduct: drug or alcohol abuse
With situational depression, any combination of these symptoms manifests within three months of the triggering event. If these symptoms go untreated or last for more than six months, the possibility of clinical depression should be considered.
Treatment of Situational Depression
Situational depression treatment options do not necessarily need to include medication. Suggestions for treating situational depression include:
–establishing regular sleeping and eating habits
When an individual is depressed, even small daily tasks, like making the bed, or brushing one’s teeth, can seem daunting. Treating situational depression by maintaining a routine is fundamental.
Consistent healthy eating is an important aspect of treating situational depression. To feel well from the inside out, the body and mind need the nourishment that optimizes their processes. Junk food and fast food will most likely only contribute to the sluggishness and overall irritability that can characterize situational depression. Abstaining from caffeine and alcohol will help with mental clarity and focus.
Although exercising when depressed can seem outright impossible, getting outside for some fresh air or to the gym for lifting weights can have seemingly miraculous benefits. Not only is the body energized, but the mind is freed from the the despair and hopelessness that hold it captive, even if only for a short time.
Choosing a new hobby or continuing an old one can be a great way to give the mind and body another outlet for the overwhelming emotions stemming from situational depression. Photography, for example, can help an individual see with a different set of eyes and creatively express pain or anxiety. Knitting can keep the hands busy and also produce items that display a high level of skill, giving an individual a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Whatever the hobby, channeling negative emotions and energy through a positive and productive hobby can be extremely healing.
Perhaps the most helpful treatment for situational depression is speaking with a professional counselor, spiritual advisor, or trusted friend. Instead of internalizing the traumatic event, an individual can discuss his or her experience and receive encouragement and guidance in return.
Situational depression medication could include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, or natural vitamin supplements prescribed or recommended by a medical professional. Again, medication is usually not the initial treatment for situational depression, since the condition is short-term and should improve with adaptation to the changed circumstances. Combined with therapy, however, the use of medication may be a very effective treatment option for some sufferers of situational depression.
Hope for Those Tomorrows
When a loved one is suffering from situational depression, watching his or her physical and emotional withdrawal, angry outbursts, or crying spells can be discouraging. There is great hope, however. Teach and demonstrate confident and mature coping skills. Remain a strong and gentle support, offer a listening ear, and remember that positive and encouraging care are invaluable.