Everyone will experience moments of sadness this year. Around one million will also experience depression. So, what’s the difference?

If sadness is a cold, depression is a serious flu. They might look similar from a distance, but they’re actually quite different up close.

We feel sad when something happens that we wish didn’t. Sadness is tied to a specific situation. In response we might feel upset, flat, teary, or even in pain depending on what’s caused it. When you’re sad about one thing, you can usually still feel happy about other things.

Like the weather, sad feelings come and go as a part of life. Sadness is not a negative thing, or something to be avoided. In fact, happiness wouldn’t exist without sadness – it needs an opposite. Sadness reminds us that we care about stuff. It’s a price we pay for engaging in life.

Depression is very different.

Sadness is a response to a particular situation but depression throws itself over every situation. Depression hangs around longer than sadness and impacts more areas of your life. It’s a pair of glasses that makes everything look negative –  yourself, others, the world and the future.

A lady sits on her bed with a cup of tea in her hand

Depression can feel like your body is shutting down. It’s not just a low mood but being unable to enjoy almost anything in your life. You might lose or gain weight, have difficulty sleeping (or over sleep), experience extreme fatigue and have difficulty concentrating or making decisions.

Another key difference is how depression turns you against yourself in a way that sadness doesn’t. Depression makes you become very self-critical, even convincing you that you’re worthless. The pain that comes with this, when combined with the belief that the future holds no hope for improvement, can lead to thoughts that life isn’t worth living.  

Knowing the difference is important because sadness is a part of life, but you can take action to manage depression. There are treatments that work.

Understanding the difference can help you support others more effectively too. A common mistake is when people use sadness strategies with someone experiencing depression. Sadness strategies sound like: "you’ll be right”,” look at all the good things in your life”, or ”you’ve just got to deal with it."  They fail to appreciate the weight of depression. Instead try: “I’m here for you.” “You’re not on your own with this.” “What can I do to help?”

Related reading: Questions to ask your health professional

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