Depression is a slippery word. Like many mental health terms, the way people use it in everyday speech doesn’t always line up with the clinical meaning of the word.
We might say: “This year’s presidential election is depressing.” It’s understood, of course, that we aren’t literally claiming the electoral process has triggered a serious mood disorder that’s interfering with our day-to-day functioning.
In other cases, the line between colloquial “depression” and clinical depression gets a little more subtle. What’s the difference between being depressed and having a really bad day — or a really bad month for that matter?
Because people talk about being “depressed” to mean anything from having a clinical disorder to just being in a bad mood, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming clinical depression and colloquial “depression” are more or less the same thing.
This is one way stigma starts. “When I feel depressed, I just remind myself of all the good things in my life and snap out of it — why can’t you do that? I don’t need any pills!”
Clinical depression is different though. Clinical depression is persistent, and it’s intense enough to cause ongoing impairments in your everyday functioning.
Imagine the most demoralized, sad and hopeless you’ve ever felt. That time when you were so down you couldn’t get anything done and didn’t want to interact with any other people. That moment in and of itself isn’t necessarily “depression” in a clinical sense. But if you think about what it would be like to feel that way for weeks on end, maybe not even for any particular reason, that’s getting warmer.
There’s another nuance here that makes things a little more complicated. One person’s clinical depression isn’t always the same as another’s. Some people with depression sleep too much, others have insomnia. Some eat too much, others lose their appetites. Besides sadness and hopelessness, depression can manifest as other emotions like anger or irritability.
In this Ask the Therapist video, Marie Hartwell-Walker and Daniel Tomasulo go over some of the defining characteristics of clinical depression, including what makes depression different than just being in a bad mood and how depression can show up differently in different people: