The Difference Between Sadness And Depression, As Told By A Therapist

by Jennifer L. Silvershein, LMSW

Being a member of Gen-Y is viewed as the years of exploration and having fun, yet depression is not an uncommon experience for individuals of this age group.

Since we associate depression with the primary symptom of pervasive sadness, it's common for people struggle to tell the difference between sadness and depression.

This leads to a large problem: Individuals may neglect a serious condition thinking it may just be sadness, while other individuals may overreact to feelings of sadness thinking that it may be depression.

Here's a simple way to view the differences:

Sadness is a normal human emotion; this is something we have all experienced and will continue to experience throughout our lives.

While these feelings of sadness can be triggered by a multitude of different events, we tend to feel sad about something. And once this something changes, or the feeling lessens, the sadness dissipates.

Depression is an abnormal emotional state that influences our emotions, behaviors, perceptions and thinking, in a widespread and prolonged way.

With depression there is no specific something, rather it's everything. Depression does not require a trigger. Depression is like a lingering cloud hanging over all aspects of the individual's life and making everything less pleasurable.

Signs and symptoms of depression:

Depression is not "one size fits all," especially when it comes to age and gender. Statistics have found that women in their 20s are twice as likely as men of the same age to experience depression.

Here are some main signs that someone in their 20s is suffering depression, rather than sadness.

1. A lack of enjoyment. Twenty-somethings may still go out with friends but may not enjoy themselves or feel as though they're having fun. Commonly people describe going through the motions of their lives but not feeling as though they are truly able to be present in the moment.

2. Low energy.

3. Reduced concentration. Depression can consume our thoughts. A person may notice that their mind is filled with negative thoughts or a generally pessimistic outlook on life.

This can lead to a lack of focus in school or work and an inability to produce the amazing work that is typical for the individual without depression.

4. Weight changes.

5. Less interest in sex.

6. Feeling hopeless.

7. Sleeplessness, early morning awakening, or oversleeping and not wanting to get up.

8. Thoughts of self-harm.

Gen-Y is going through many psychosocial and biological experiences that make them especially vulnerable for depression.

Depression is commonly triggered by loss, and our 20s can be filled with potential loss: losing a job, not getting into the college or program we hoped for, breaking up with a significant other, realizing our dream career may not work out immediately, potentially losing friends, and so on.

One's 20s are an abstract time, and can commonly leave people feeling powerless to the changes going on in their life.

There is no single cause as to why 20-somethings experience depression. Instead, it is believed that to be a combination of environmental, genetic, biochemical and psychological factors.

In some cases 20-somethings may not be aware of certain lifestyle factors that can contribute to depressive symptoms - for example: binge-drinking, poor sleep schedules, eating unhealthy foods, amongst other things.

College students are reporting greater levels of anxiety, depression, stress, poor sleep patterns and eating disorders than previously reported.

While it seems great that we are hyper-connected to most things in the world this connection may also lead us to feeling more overwhelmed and confused.

In many cases, more choices leads to more anxiety. As if the choices weren't enough, we now have constant exposure to the extremely wealthy, attractive celebrities, whose status can lead us to creating problematic comparisons.

When a young adult gets to college there are many influences that can cause depression. Going to college is extremely stressful. While in many ways it's considered "a rite of passage," it's also an overwhelming change from being taken care of and relying on adults, to having to look after ourselves.

Intense academic pressure can often lead to feelings of anxiety or depression. Many times students find themselves trying to fulfill the expectations to get good grades in school, become well rounded by participating in extracurricular activities, find the "perfect" internship and then get a dream job.

While having high aspirations is not a bad thing, it's important to be realistic in order not to set ourselves up to fail.

There are multitudes of ways in which an individual can alleviate feelings of depression. While the list below does not cover every way to treat depression, it highlights some effective strategies.


Psychotherapy is an effective way to relieve symptoms experienced by individuals who suffer from depression. Working with a therapist helps individuals to identify the  psychological, behavioral, interpersonal and situational factors that contribute to their depression.

Asking for help

Reaching out to your social network for support. It's common to withdraw from our social supports, friends and family, when we're feeling depressed but having, and using these supports is crucial while experiencing depression.

Looking after your physical health

Another way to begin combatting symptoms of depression is by leading a healthier lifestyle. This includes eating healthily, exercising and getting at least eight hours of sleep per night.

I always say that gratitude is the attitude. Sometimes in those moments when we are so focused on our depression, helping others enables us to feel more purposeful, and therefore more positive.