Many people say that they suffer from depression, but are actually having a simple case of “the blues” — after a few hours or a day, or when something pleasant happens, they go back to being their happy self. This means that they are not truly depressed because, in reality, clinical depression is much more complex and long-lasting. This is actually one factor that sets depression from sadness — its duration.
If You Experience Symptoms for a Prolonged Period, You May Be Depressed
When you have major depression, the primary symptom is having a severe and persistent low mood characterized by sadness, a sense of despair and helplessness. In some cases, it may manifest as irritability. Some people who are depressed also no longer enjoy activities that they used to love.1
However, many people confuse sadness with depression. So how can you tell the difference between the two? In an article in Everyday Health, Irina Firstein, a mental health counselor based in New York, explains that:
“The difference between normal sadness and depression is in the duration and intensity. Sadness is a normal human reaction to an event or experience that is unwanted, painful or unfortunate. Usually these feelings will lessen or lift with the passage of time, processing of the event, and seeing it in perspective or as a continuum of life …
"When feelings of normal sadness or winter blues don't go away and, in fact, get deeper and more intense, and there is a difficulty or major effort in carrying out daily activities, they can be signs of depression."2
The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) also states that sadness is only a small component of depression. In fact, some people who deal with depression may not even be sad at all. Indeed, there are many symptoms associated with this disorder. However, if you suffer from the symptoms mentioned above (as well as those in the Symptoms page of this guide) for at least two weeks, then you may be depressed.3
The Duration of Depression Can Vary — and It Can Relapse
If left untreated, clinical depression can last for eight months or so.4 On average, clinically depressed individuals can suffer from the symptoms anywhere between six and eight months.5 The intensity of the symptoms may also vary per episode.6
Interventional treatment might help reduce this timeframe, but you should also be wary when coming up with a treatment plan, as some psychotherapies (and even antipsychotic medications) can actually worsen depression.7 What’s more, depression can relapse. “Sometimes even with excellent expert treatment, depression can return and become chronic,” says Dr. Howard Belkin, a psychiatrist at the Birmingham Counseling Center in Royal Oak, Michigan.8
In addition, the more episodes you have, the higher your chances of suffering more periods of relapse. According to experts, 60 percent of those who had an episode may have a second relapse, 70 percent who had two episodes will have a third, and 90 percent with three depression episodes are at risk of a fourth one. It’s as if depression “feeds” on itself.9
The cause of the relapse varies from one patient to another — it usually depends on their triggers. Family issues, money worries and job difficulties are just some common risk factors for depression relapses. Therefore, avoiding these potential triggers, or making sure that they do not affect you, may be crucial to avoid suffering a relapse.
It’s important to recognize depression as a real condition. Accept the fact that you are dealing with it, so you can seek help and treatment to overcome it. Lastly, keep in mind that having a relapse is possible — if you feel your symptoms returning, don’t hesitate to get help immediately.