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We often confuse sadness for depression and this is why it’s a problem

We often confuse sadness for depression and this is why it’s a problem

a close-up selfie of a man who is not smiling and has short dark hair

It became clear early in 2018 that it was not going to be a good year for me. Just two days into it we unexpectedly had to put down our beloved golden retriever, Spikie.

‘Maybe this is a sign that 2018 is going to be shit,’ my brother joked to me at the vet’s office.

He couldn’t have been more prophetic. The first six months of 2018 turned out to be some of the worst of my life. It started with Spikie’s death and almost every day for the next half a year, something traumatic or majorly stressful would happen to me.

a golden retriever sits on the grass, looking up and to the right
Our beloved Spikie just days before he died | Photo: Shannon Power

My horror 2018

I’ll list just some of things that happened in those 182 days: I had two miscarriages resulting in months of medical complications and illness, a friend unexpectedly died, my mum was in hospital multiple times – and eventually diagnosed with serious lung disease, my first serious relationship ended, my finances took a battering because I missed a lot of work, I got diagnosed with anxiety, my other dog needed emergency surgery and so many other things. So many.

I also moved to London, which did help tip the scales in my favor slightly. But it wasn’t without its challenges including, a sense of loneliness and isolation.

No chance to come up for air

It was unrelenting, I barely got time to recover from one trauma, when another came through and eroded my resilience. So you can probably understand that it all took a toll on my mental and emotional health.

To put it simply, I was a blubbering mess for the first half of 2018 and a massive downer to be around. There were breakdowns, anxiety attacks and a lot of crying.

a close up selfie of a girl with curly hair, behind her is an empty sports stadium
2018 had me so frazzled I turned up to an Aussie Rules football match a day early | Photo: Shannon Power

My close friends and family did a stellar job but there were a couple of comments over those months that did not help.

‘Maybe you need to go on anti-depressants?’ I heard more than once.

A GP even tried to prescribe them to me after I described the year I’d had.

People thought I was medically depressed because I was crying all the time, when in fact I was grieving.

I was just very, very sad by all the hurt I had experienced in a short amount of time. The calls for me to take anti-depressants became frequent enough that I asked my psychologist in Australia and then my counsellor in London.

‘No, you don’t need anti-depressants. You’re just hurt and you need to work through that,’ they both more or less said to me.

Sadness vs depression

Now, we can’t judge those people in my life for suggesting I might depressed. After all, they’re not medical professionals and all they’d seen was me inconsolable for months.

But there is a difference between the two.

Dr Grant Blashki is the clinical lead at Australian mental health organization, beyondblue. He told Gay Star News that ‘sadness is very much part of the natural human experience.’

‘All of us feel sad at times because of losses, disappointments or even just feel sad for no particular reason,’ Blashki said.

‘Depressive disorders are distinguished by the duration, severity and persistence of the sadness, and the associated symptoms such as hopelessness, pessimism, sleep problems, weight changes, appetite changes and, not uncommonly, suicidal thinking.’

We feel sadness and that shows we’re human

But how often is sadness confused with depression and vice versa? Do medical professionals actually make the mistake too?

Zachary Penrith-Puchalski’s experience would suggest that is probably the case. After his father’s suicide in 2014, his GP was quick to prescribe him anti-depressants.

‘I actually found his body,’ Penrith-Puchalski said. ‘For weeks after I didn’t sleep probably related to the shock and trauma of it all.’

He wanted the GP to give him a referral to a counsellor to help him deal with his grief, but instead got anti-depressants which he stayed on for the next 12 months.

‘I went along with what he said because he’s been trained, so I just did what he said,’ Penrith-Puchalski said.

‘I took the pills for about a year, and they didn’t help at all. I felt flat, I didn’t feel sad.’

The anti-depressants simply delayed Penrith-Puchalski’s grief.

‘I feel like it robbed me. That diagnosis of depression started a chain reaction and I feel like I was robbed of my grief,’ he said.

Sadness is a necessary emotion, according to Counselling Directory member Karen Pollock. They are a counsellor and Bi Pride UK’s diversity and inclusion lead.

‘It’s a necessary emotion, it shows we’re connected to people and to things. It’s as vital a joy,’ they said.

‘It’s important to feel sadness appropriately. We should never try to fix grief.’

Sorry business

What further delayed accessing appropriate psychological help was the doctor’s lack of cultural understanding. Penrith-Puchalski is a Yorta Yorta man, one of Australia’s many Aboriginal groups.

An important part of Aboriginal culture is the practice of ‘Sorry Business’. It is the series of cultural practices surrounding death, bereavement and grief. Penrith-Puchalski describes Sorry Business as collective grieving with rituals individual to different Aboriginal groups.

‘I think the doctors were culturally incompetent, so they didn’t understand that Indigenous families tend to be very, very close,’ he said.

‘Grief and all of that is a major thing for Indigenous people and their families and I don’t think they addressed that as well as they should have.

‘They were very quick to put me on the anti-depressants.’

Pollock argued that people in Western countries are ‘very bad at death rituals’, which often lead to people not dealing with grief in the most effective ways.

‘In the UK we sit in a draughty hall for 30 minutes and then eat some sandwiches after someone dies,’ they said.

‘I think there’s a taboo around sadness that we rush to comfort.’

How can you tell if you’re depressed or just sad?

Recognizing the difference between sadness and depression is critical, because ‘the consequences of getting it wrong are so dreadful’, Pollock said.

‘It’s important to say that if you do have depression, generally people know it,’ they said.

Pollock described depression as ‘the absence of feeling’ and encouraged people to notice if their mood interfered with their day-to-day life on a long term basis.

‘Are you still able to do the little things that matter? Are you still able to brush your teeth, to shower, can you still work?’ they said.

‘What have you had to give up to get to work?’

They said it was important to look beyond whether you were still making it in to work, but if you were not doing basic self care or engaging in normal routines then it might be time to see a GP.

Some behaviors exhibited when we’re sad are similar to depression such as, staying in bed for days after a break-up. But when those behaviors impact on your everyday life over a longer period of time, then you may have slipped into depression.

‘Depression is an emptiness and a regular lack of emotion. People with depression aren’t feeling anything,’ Pollock said.

‘Depression is a whiteboard eraser that takes away all those things we’re feeling and sometimes sadness can make us feel like that.

‘But depression is different from everything else, it’s that emptiness and being cut off from humanity, it’s very unique to itself.’

If you or someone you know needs mental health support, please visit this link of international resources.