The Difference Between Being Depressed and Having Depression

October 16, 2017 Shelby Tweten

Being depressed and having depression are two separate things. Learn the differences between being depressed and having depression so you get the right help.

The difference between being depressed and having depression is the difference between sadness and a mental illness and may be the most common misconception about mental illnesses. You could have just went through financial troubles, went through a break-up, had a death in the family, or maybe lost some friends; there are plenty of reasons you could relate to things on HealthyPlace--this does not necessarily mean you have a mental illness. Let me explain about being depressed and having depression.

Being Depressed Is Temporary; Having Depression Is Something Else

People nowadays like to sound extreme. We like to use exaggerated words to describe things such as: depressed instead of sad or bipolar instead of moody. I have people constantly trying to talk to me about how they think they're depressed or have a mental illness. That leads me into asking why they think that. Their most common response is that they've been feeling really sad lately because something is wrong in their life. At that point, I try to stay calm and remember they truly think they have depression because that's what society has made it seem like. So I start to explain as nicely as I can that as long as you have a reason, it's okay to feel sad in life sometimes (How to Respond to Mental Health Stigma If You’re Frustrated).

Having Depression May Make You Think You're Just Depressed

When Should You Get Help?

On the other side of the spectrum, there are people that I know that are extremely depressed but refuse to get help. If you have depression, your life is completely turned upside down for absolutely no reason; you could be at a point where things are perfect from the outside, but it feels like you’re walking around with a cloud over your head. Every day you keep thinking to your self, “Why am I sad?”, “Why do I feel like I could break down and cry at any point?”, “Is this normal?”, or “Is something wrong with me?” If your sadness is getting to the point that it's affecting your work, relationships, sleep, or you feel suicidal, you need to get help--try not to self-diagnose.

You Are Not Alone

I wish when I was getting diagnosed there were more websites like this. You can go to places like HealthPlace and feel less alone. Once you look into it, you realize that feelings you thought were crazy are going through others people's minds, too. A lot of people are sad and a lot of people are depressed--we all just need to remember that no one knows what's actually going on behind closed doors

APA Reference
Tweten, S. (2017, October 16). The Difference Between Being Depressed and Having Depression, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 from

Author: Shelby Tweten

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Lizanne Corbit
October, 16 2017 at 12:24 pm

A wonderfully helpful, and insightful read. I think your point about exaggerated language is so incredibly aware and important. We have become such an overly sensationalized society, exposed to pretty much everything, being aware of the impact of language is so important. Thanks for posting.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

October, 29 2017 at 10:46 pm

This is exactly why bringing awareness to the truth behind mental illness is so important! I'm glad you felt affected.

May, 26 2018 at 1:24 pm

Thanks so much for this, Shelby. It seem that depression has become very much in vogue at the moment and, from a personal view, I'm slightly conscious of my family throwing the term around a little too easily. In the past few years, we've gone through some rough times with family deaths, serious illnesses and various difficulties. My mother has told me that she's struggling and believes she has depression. What you've said here is (a far more eloquent!) version of what I gently told her; as it's very much what I've always believed. Life will knock you around, and unhappiness and feeling low are natural. It's when you're feeling low when you have no reason to, that there's a true sign that something is chemically wrong.

Mike Krawetz
November, 16 2018 at 11:41 am

Agreed...thanks Shelby. I'm having a hard time constantly explaining to people that Depression is not what they think it is. It's a medical condition requiring medical help, not a normal human sadness requiring a hug. I really, really and truly wish the medical community would come up with a new name for Depression, so it is distinguished from sadness... and then maybe people will stop telling me to "just cheer up" LOL

Melina hughes
March, 31 2021 at 2:14 pm

my husband thinks that being depressed is the same as having depression. So if I lost my cat and I cry for a few days I say I'm depressed but I don't suffer from depression. Can you please help me understand or help him because we are not getting anywhere

April, 1 2021 at 1:16 pm

Hi Melina! (This is Tanya Peterson. Shelby Tweten, the author of this post, no longer writes for HealthyPlace so is unable to answer your question. I am the co-author of this blog and the HealthyPlace Anxiety-Schmanxiety Blog.)
You and your husband aren't the only ones confused by the terms "being depressed" and "having depression." The phrases are thrown around casually and interchangeably, and they mean something a little different to each person.
When people refer to "being depressed" and use the term like you do in your example (losing your cat, crying, and saying you're depressed), it's usually implied that this is limited to the feeling of sadness. In this situation, there are no other symptoms. Also the emotion is caused by a specific situation and is fleeting. (While of course you'd probably miss your cat for quite awhile and feel sad about it not coming back, the intensity of the feeling would lessen over time and you could still function in your life as you always do.) Here, the phrase is the casual use of a clinical term and isn't literal.
Clinical depression is different. This may be what you/your husband mean by "having depression" or "suffer from depression." Depression is a psychiatric/medical illness that does involve feeling sad, but there is much more to it than that. Clinical depression (also called major depressive disorder, major depression, or simply depression) involves feelings of sadness that aren't necessarily tied to a specific situation or event like losing your cat. Someone with clinical depression often doesn't know why they're so down. Or sometimes the opposite is true--they can identify many reasons why they feel very sad, and they usually feel guilty about feeling this way. The sadness of depression often feels like hopelessness or despair rather than temporarily heartbroken or upset.
Also, with true depression, there are other symptoms: a lack of interest in things once enjoyed (maybe someone lost their cat and does feel sad about it, but they also might not really care because they've lost interest in having a pet or don't have the energy to care for one--and this causes even more guilt and sadness); lack of motivation; crushing fatigue that makes even simple tasks feel overwhelming and exhausting--if not impossible; changes in sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little despite being tired, or waking up in the night and being unable to get back to sleep); changes in appetite leading to unintended weight loss or weight gain; withdrawal from family, friends, and activities; thoughts about death, dying, or suicide. These symptoms hang on for days or weeks at a time, and they often return after they've disappeared for awhile. Depression can make it very difficult or impossible for someone to get out of bed or off the couch, care for themselves or others, go to school, go to work, or otherwise participate in daily life.
The confusion comes because people do use the term "depression" to mean two different things. It's a term people use to convey that they're feeling sad because of a situation, and it's a medical term to refer to a mental health disorder that is prolonged and interferes in life. It might help to think of "depressed" as an adjective that describes a feeling of sadness and "depression" as a noun that describes a medical condition.
I hope this helps clarify things! If not, feel free to keep asking questions! It's through questions and discussions/debates like the one you and your husband are having that we all learn and grow!

May, 14 2022 at 6:08 pm

The problem is, the line between the two is thin. One can easily go from feeling sad to major depression, and it most certainly can be triggered by events. It's how one deals with those events and whether those events are compounded that can determine whether the person is simply sad, or is truly depressed.

December, 4 2022 at 11:30 am

“I have people constantly trying to talk to me about how they think they're depressed or have a mental illness. That leads me into asking why they think that. Their most common response is that they've been feeling really sad lately because something is wrong in their life. At that point, I try to stay calm and remember they truly think they have depression because that's what society has made it seem like.”
This feels like gate keeping to me. The fact that you have to “try to stay calm” when people articulate their very real feelings how they can in a way you don’t think is accurate to the medical community is telling. What if you’re someone who has long term crippling external circumstances that makes you feel despair, helplessness, self hatred, irritability, lack of motivation, anxiety to get up in the morning, and are paralyzed by mundane tasks — this person wouldn’t have actual depression if it can be attributed to outside circumstances and not automatically to a chemical imbalance in their brain? Am I hearing this correctly? Mental illness is never triggered by extreme external circumstances?
Another quote from the article - “If you have depression, your life is completely turned upside down for *absolutely no reason*; you could be at a point where things are perfect from the outside, but it feels like you’re walking around with a cloud over your head.”
I understand society enjoys extremes and self diagnosis which is unhealthy, but it feels insensitive to say that depression (or other mental illness) is never triggered by extreme external/social/emotional circumstances that can be eased through emotional therapy and is *only due* to a medical chemical imbalance unaffected by positive external circumstances. I understand there’s a difference between being sad for a few days because, say, someone died (healthy and normal grief) which is very different from having actual clinical depression caused by chemical imbalance, but how can that invalidate long term despair from continuous and extreme external circumstances that majorly effect your external and mental quality of life and that cause fear of your ability to survive through the future?
If I came to you in an appropriate setting - like people have previously as you described - and I said “Hey, I think I might have depression. Within the past three weeks, I lost my job because my employer retroactively decided they wanted someone fifteen years older with five years expereince and now I’m struggling to find any industry job that will take me since no one wants anyone with no expereince out of college and I’m also now battling fear of rejection again, grandma died, my apartment lease is being cut short and I’m struggling to find and afford a new lease in this impossibly inflated market without a job, I immediately got the flu and then food poisoning after being fired and the funeral respectively, I feel like I’ve lost all direction in my career, I’m two thousand miles away from any family or friends, I feel suffocated and isolated by my new city and battle constant home sickness, I can’t afford surgery for my cat, I feel like I have suddenly zero financial stability, I feel like an utter failure, I cry every morning because I’m afraid to get up and face the day, and I struggle with all of the symptoms of depression.” Would you sit there calmly and correct me by saying I’m “just sad”?
What it feels like this article is saying is “even if you feel continuous symptoms of depression for weeks from a fear you will lose everything because of your external circumstances out of your control, and you’re paralyzed because of it, you’re just sad. You’re uninformed to describe yourself as having depression because you could fix your feelings on your own if you just fixed your external circumstances. If you’re not dependent on medicine to fix the problem, then you’re being ignorant to use the term ‘depression’ to describe yourself.”
I know the author Shelby Tweten is no longer at HealthyPlace. If anyone at HealthyPlace has any insight to clarify confusion from this article it would be much appreciated.

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