Am I depressed or just "quarantine depressed"?

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A lot of us are feeling like crap right now. On the one hand, it’s no wonder, what with the global crisis and all. On the other hand, depression can feel like an emotional quarantine and it’s easy to start wondering whether the bad feelings are here to stay. And, as psychologists will tell you, feeling sad or frustrated is different than having clinical depression — regardless of whether it’s mild, moderate, or severe. In an act of self-preservation, a lot of us are stopping to think about whether they’re just quarantine depressed, or if there’s something more serious going on that would warrant reaching out to a professional.

The first thing to consider is whether you felt consistently sad, numb, or hopeless before the COVID-19 crisis began. “If you were feeling depressed before shutdown started, it’s more likely to be ‘clinical’ depression, whereas if it started after COVID — or along with it, it’s more likely a response to the situation,” says Matthew Mutchler, psychotherapist and associate professor of counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. Mutchler explains that the pandemic can also intensify symptoms of mental health issues that may have been present in subtle ways before the crisis. “A person might have had ‘low level’ depression before shutdown, and now their symptoms are exacerbated,” he says, so it’s really important to recall your state of mind in, say, January, in order to understand what might be going on for you emotionally right now.

Most of us are experiencing sort of a collective grief experience.

It’s tempting to chalk everything negative up to coronavirus right now, but the reality is that a lot of different situations can cause a depressed response. “A personally significant change in life circumstances disrupts a normal routine and can cause increased distress,” says Curtis Reisinger, a New York-based psychologist and assistant professor at Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University. “This is a form of loss or a grief reaction.”

Individually, we tend to experience this kind of grief when it’s connected to a personal loss, like when we mourn the death of a loved one or the dissolution of a relationship, but right now — during this pandemic — most of us are experiencing sort of a collective grief experience.

Mutchler calls this kind of grief, “ambiguous loss.” The good news is that grieving, while devastatingly uncomfortable, is also natural. When we are grieving, we can experience a lot of the symptoms that people associate with depression, like low energy, sadness, difficulty focusing, and having a hard time taking pleasure in the things we usually do. But for many of us, the sadness we’re experiencing will be temporary. “When we grieve, time usually, but not always, lessens the pain and suffering,” Mutchler explains. “With depression, time does not help.”

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It’s important to note that it is also natural for people to respond to similar situations very differently. “Sometimes people label quite different states with a label they are familiar with or that is commonly known,” Reisinger says. “Someone, for example, may label fatigue or tiredness as ‘feeling depressed.” But, as he explains, that doesn’t mean that all of these experiences are the same. In basic terms, we use words like “sadness,” and, “depression,” because we are all familiar with them, but they don’t translate exactly from one person to the next.

The truth is, though, that the differences between grief and clinical depression don’t make much difference to a person who feels really sad right now.

What that means is that while you and a lot of folks you care about may describe themselves as “depressed,” right now, it doesn’t mean that all of us are now dealing with mental illness. What it most likely means, according to the experts I spoke to, is that a lot of us may be responding to the COVID-19 crisis in dramatically different ways but using the same language to describe them. Psychologists were quick to remind me that clinical depression is not the same thing as having a healthy grief reaction, but, “I am having an ambiguous grief response,” just doesn’t have the same ring as, “I am so effing depressed.”

The truth is, though, that the differences between grief and clinical depression don’t make much difference to a person who feels really sad right now. “Whether you were depressed before or are depressed now doesn’t make your suffering any more or less real and valid,” says Mutchler. The important thing is how much acceptance and compassion we can offer ourselves and each other when we are faced with these feelings. “We don’t have a cultural script for dealing with something like this,” says Mutchler. “Feel what you feel and recognize that it’s OK to feel it. There are no ‘wrong’ emotional reactions right now.”

However you feel right now is valid and sacred. Take relief where you can find it. Mutchler and Reisinger agreed that it’s crucial right now to move towards the healthiest coping mechanisms available to you. Talking to a therapist is never a bad idea, but don’t forget to take care of the basics — eating well, staying hydrated, and getting sleep. Having too much or not enough of any of these can greatly increase feelings of distress, Reisinger says. Mutchler recommends finding ways to manage and express your emotions by reaching out to folks who are important to you. Self-isolation can still include doing things with other people, even if in virtual form. And, as Mutchler says, “keep breathing.”

If you are concerned that you or someone you love is experiencing severe depression or is at risk for suicide, please call the Mental Health Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. Treatment and referrals are available 24/7.