The Difference Between Sadness and Depression - United Way of Greater St. Louis

The Difference Between Sadness and Depression

“I feel like I’m in a fog,” I say.

The words come easily but not without shame. If I don’t look her in the eye, I won’t see her judgment and maybe, just maybe, my words will fall onto deaf ears. We can pretend it never happened.

“Like a permanent cloud hovering over you, causing you to see only negativity.”

She poses it as a statement, not a question. She already knows the answer.


“Things that once made you happy don’t anymore. Nothing does.”


“And you look at your surroundings and ask yourself, ‘What’s the point of this or anything else?’”


I look up. She gets it. She’s the first that’s listened, understood and not tried to fix the problem.

“It’s not all in your head.”

A few months ago, this was me. I went from being a happy, optimistic, lover-of-life to lost, distraught and miserable. It didn’t happen overnight; it wasn’t a phase or a mood swing. It was real, in my face, every second of every day for months from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning until I closed them at night. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

My life was, by all accounts, very good. If you would’ve asked me what more I could’ve wanted, I would’ve said “nothing.” And it was true. During that time, my husband and I purchased the home of our dreams, a place we’d been eyeing for more than a year. I remember the day we moved in, sitting on the edge of the bed, thinking: This is perfect. This is everything we wanted. I should be happy. I should be excited. But I just can’t.

No matter how alone I may have felt, I wasn’t. An estimated 15 million Americans – nearly 7 percent of the population – live with major depression.

It consumed me. I felt like I was asleep, simply going through life in some dreamlike state, unconscious, surrounded by nothingness. I lost interest in everyone and everything I loved. I simply didn’t care about anything. I became reclusive and negative. I was quicker to anger and frustration. I dwelled on my failures, weaknesses and questioned if anyone cared. I felt guilty for my thoughts but couldn’t control them. By the end I was desperate for someone or something to “shake” me and “wake” me up, to prove that I wasn’t asleep, that this was real life. For the first time in my life, I felt hopeless.

But I was against seeking help. It was easier to pretend everything was OK than to admit I needed help. Asking for help would only make it more of a reality, and that was something I had lost touch with. I didn’t want to entertain the idea that something serious was happening to me. Instead, I ignored it and hoped it would go away on its own. It didn’t.

The most difficult part of my depression was not the impact it had on me but on those around me. My family and friends didn’t understand. They wanted to know how to help. Some blamed themselves, thinking my depression was caused by something they had done or not done. The looks on their faces posed the same questions I had been asking myself for months: What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I snap out of it? Why can’t I just be happy? And that was the most painful part of my depression: not having an answer for the ones I loved.

Because depression’s primary symptom is persistent sadness, the difference between sadness and depression can be unclear, but these two psychological states differ tremendously.

The Alliance on Mental Illness – NAMI St. Louis, a United Way agency, explains that what we sometimes refer to as “depression” is actually sadness, something we’ve all experienced and will experience again. When we experience sadness, it’s typically about something specific. Depression is different. Depression is the persistent feeling of sadness that doesn’t necessarily have a trigger. In other words, depression is when you’re sad about everything.

Depression can be difficult to detect from the outside, but for those who experience major depression, it is disruptive in a multitude of ways. Symptoms vary from person to person and hold the power to affect one’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, mood and even physical health. For me, my symptoms included loss of interest, difficulty concentrating, irritability, low self-esteem, guilt, hopelessness and worthlessness. Other symptoms of depression include changes in weight or appetite, loss of energy, difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or sleeping longer than usual, and suicidal thoughts.

Depression can affect anyone and does not have a single cause. It can be triggered, or it may occur spontaneously without being associated with a life crisis, physical illness or other risk. Several factors can contribute to depression, including trauma, genetics, life circumstances, brain structure, drug and alcohol abuse, or other medical conditions.

Major depression is the leading cause of disability across the United States. Of the 15 million American adults affected by major depression, only 50 percent seek treatment. With early detection, diagnosis and a treatment plan, many people experiencing depression get better. Some people have only one episode in a lifetime, but for most people depression recurs. Without treatment, episodes can last a few months to several years.

It took me nearly six months to admit to myself that something was wrong, that I needed help. In that time, I devastated not only myself but my friends and family. But it didn’t have to be that way.

You’re not alone. If you believe you are experiencing depression, visit The Alliance on Mental Illness – NAMI St. Louis’ website to learn more. To find resources in your area that can help, call 2-1-1 (1-800-427-4626). If you are having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Abby Downs

Abby Downs is the digital marketing specialist in the marketing and communications department of United Way of Greater St. Louis.

Comments are closed.

United Way of Greater St. Louis’ blog and social media presence is designed as a source for information, sharing and collaboration about United Way and health and human service related topics. As part of our commitment to our readers, we expect all posters to abide by the following rules:

* Posts and comments should be on topic, conversational, and serve to educate or entertain

* Posts and comments may not be unlawful, fraudulent, threatening, libelous, defamatory, discriminatory, harassing, obscene or otherwise rude or in poor taste

* Posts and comments may not be used for any commercial purpose or otherwise to promote any outside organization or its activities

United Way of Greater St. Louis reserves the right, at our discretion, to remove any post or to revoke a user's privilege to post to our page. Comments found to be in conflict with the guidelines above will be removed promptly.

Comments are not necessarily those of United Way of Greater St. Louis and its employees and we do not guarantee the accuracy of these posts.