What Is Situational Depression? What Doctors Want You to Know

This form of the depression is different than others—here's how to recognize it.

Many people experience depression, but situational depression is a specific type of this mental health condition. It refers to feelings of sadness following a traumatic event in a person's life, such as a job loss, death of a loved one, or a serious illness diagnosis. Here's how experts explain situational depression, including the main symptoms, how it's treated, and how long it lasts.

What is situational depression?

Situational depression is not an official mental health diagnosis on its own. It's classified as an adjustment disorder; it makes it difficult for a person to adjust after experiencing trauma or a dramatic change in day-to-day life. Greg Simon, MD, MPH, a Washington-based psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente, tells Health that situational depression follows an event that leaves a person feeling chronically stressed, upset, or bereaved, and compared to other types of depression tends to be more transient in nature.

What causes it?

As the term implies, situational depression is a direct result of a stressful or traumatic situation. That can include dealing with the death of a loved one, loss of a job, divorce or a romantic breakup, a significant diagnosis of illness, or any other situation known to cause intense stress. Though not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop situational depression, those who are more prone to classic depression are more likely to have situational depression. "Some people are much more vulnerable to depression because of their genetics or life experiences following stress or traumatic events," says Dr. Simon. "It's a combination of vulnerability and experience."

What are the symptoms?

Situational depression symptoms are similar to clinical depression symptoms, which include feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, and sadness as well as a lack of interest in activities a person used to enjoy. However, situational depression may also be marked by an irritable mood and coldness, especially toward the distressing situation. "With situational depression, the situation is so overwhelming that it's hard to face and you defend against it by being callous or cold, withdrawing, or getting angry," Gerald Shiener, MD, chief of psychiatry at Detroit Medical Center tells Health. "Those are defenses against getting further discouraged by the situation." These symptoms can evolve in severity if left untreated.

How long does it last?

Situational depression can last anywhere from two weeks to months, depending on how affected a person is by the traumatic event. If left untreated, situational depression has the potential to evolve into major depressive disorder, which is another name for the classic depression people develop that doesn't have to be related to any specific trauma. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), situational depression becomes chronic following six months of symptoms.

How is it treated?

Like many other types of depression, situational depression can be treated with mental health counseling or psychotherapy in its early stages, though others may look to medication like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or dopamine reuptake inhibitors. A combination of both drugs has proven to be helpful, depending on the severity of situational depression. But counseling without medication could be the answer. "Often people who have situational depression know something is wrong and they look for help, and they respond better to counseling and talk about their experiences," says Dr. Simon. "They're more likely to be helped that way, and not likely to require medication."

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