All of us at various points within our lifetime will experience events, challenges, changes and difficulties that negatively impact our mental health. Struggling and needing help from time to time makes us human, and we are not alone.
What can we do when our ability to deal with these struggles is crumbling? What help is available to us when our attempts at healing and making sense of what has happened develops into situational depression?
What is situational depression?
Sometimes called reactive depression or adjustment disorder with depressed mood, situational depression is a temporary, stress-related form of depression that’s triggered by an identifiable traumatic event or series of events. It has many similar symptoms to clinical depression but differs in several ways, one being that situational depression usually resolves itself once the stress-related event no longer exists and/or the emotional response to it has adapted or eased. It can develop after we lose or change jobs, end a relationship, experience health issues, bereavement, move house, retire, etc.
Any life adjustment can set off a period of anxiety and/or depression. There are no rules about what we should and should not be able to emotionally and mentally process. Sometimes certain things, for whatever reason, get a little too heavy — and it’s okay to feel this way and need support. When it comes to situational depression, being able to recognize what has caused our trauma means we can find ways to identify effective help.
What are the symptoms?
Although I’ve not been formally diagnosed with situational depression, my husband’s late-stage cancer diagnosis in 2019 and his continued fight (including his latest round of surgeries back in March this year) recently had me experiencing some intense difficulties. Symptoms of situational depression can be different from person-to-person but may include:
• disrupted/lack of sleep
• lack of interest and/or enjoyment in normal activities
• difficulty focusing and inability to carry out daily activities
• avoiding social interactions
• feelings of overwhelm, hopelessness and sadness
• persistent anxiety and worrying
• frequent crying
• not taking care of yourself or everyday tasks like house chores, etc
• suicide ideation or suicide attempts
I experienced all of these except for attempted suicide, but I did begin to think that life, and everybody in it, would be better off if I wasn’t alive. These recurring thoughts, most likely born from the fear of losing my husband, finally made me understand that I wasn’t coping as well as I thought. After sitting with this for a while, I realised that I had stopped doing many things that brought me joy. I hadn’t left the house (unless for medical appointments and hospital stays), I stopped listening to music, I couldn’t focus on reading and my motivation to write anything disappeared. All the colour and delight had drained from my existence as I cocooned myself in the hard grit that was needed to help the person I love the most.
But you don’t need to be facing something like cancer to be plunged into the complexities of situational depression. There are no hardship Olympics that we need to qualify for and then compete in. There is no one trauma-inducing event that beats all others. Under these circumstances, comparison isn’t just the thief of joy, it’s the suppressor of support at a time when we probably need it the most. Unemployment, exams, bullying, pandemics, financial difficulties, divorce, illness, death or any other life change can produce situational depression. All of them are equally valid.
What help can you get?
Treatment for situational depression can range from lifestyle changes, counselling that builds resiliency/coping mechanisms, therapy (including cognitive behavioural therapy) or medication. Talking with a trusted family member or friend may be a positive first step (this is what helped me) but if you’re increasingly unable to take care of yourself and/or undertake everyday responsibilities/activities, you should seek professional help from your doctor. No matter which treatment ends up being suitable for you, it’s important to let those around you know that you need support.
*Asking for help isn’t as simple as it sounds because many people are reluctant to do so. If you know someone has recently gone through a life-changing event/adjustment, and you’re emotionally available to assist, ask if they need support instead of waiting for them to come to you.
Here in the United States, millions of people do not have equal access to healthcare. Many are underinsured, face financial burden because of incomplete coverage or have no insurance at all. If you don’t have easy or affordable access to professional mental health support, there are organizations that can help. Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) provide community-based health services that often work on a sliding fee scale (find your local FQHC here).
Open Path Psychotherapy Collective is a non-profit that provides a nationwide network of mental health professionals that work with middle- and lower-income individuals and families. For various helplines and 24/7 mental health support, visit the website of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) and look through their extensive resources. NAMI also categorises specific assistance for Black, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latinx, LGBTQ+ and disabled Americans (you can find this information here).
No matter how, when or why situational depression develops, everyone deserves love, kindness, understanding and support. I hope you find it. And for those who have kindly asked, my husband is continuing to do well and I’m back to reading, writing and listening to music — it’s good to reclaim what nourishes my mental and physical health.
CheckPoint – global (by country) resources for mental health support