When I was barely an adult, I was thrown into situations where I was responsible for the well being of dozens of children at a time. That’s what it means to get an entry-level job in education.
In the whirlwind that followed, once piece of advice from a sage veteran teacher stuck with me: “If you think you need to call an ambulance, call an ambulance.” That wisdom has definitely saved lives – and it’s a principle I continue to use.
We all get sad. And frustrated, and despondent, and downcast, and disconsolate, and out of sorts. The English language is rich in words for inner pain because it’s a universal experience.
But there’s a difference between feeling sad and being sad. It can be hard to know when sadness is something more.
Sadness ≠ Depression
Long-term feelings of sadness and despair might be signs of clinical depression, but not necessarily. And many people who experience depression do not “feel sad” at all. They may instead experience sleeplessness, or chronic pain, or disordered eating. It’s tempting to think of long-term sadness and depression as the same thing. But although there’s significant overlap, the two terms aren’t synonymous.
While almost anyone can tell if they’re feeling sad or not, a diagnosis of depression requires professional evaluation. You wouldn’t try to self-diagnose with any chronic disease. Depression is no different.
So do I need to see a professional?
If you’re feeling sad, talking to a mental health professional might help. And it never hurts to get an expert opinion, if you have the resources. But not everyone who is feeling a bit down needs medical attention. Before you seek out professional advice, it might be helpful to ask yourself the following questions to determine what the best next steps are.
How long have I been feeling sad?
If you stub your toe, it’ll hurt. A lot. You may even feel the need to use strong language. And then the pain generally goes away in minutes, and you can get on with your life.
But if the pain persists for hours, you might start getting concerned. If you wake up the next morning and your toe still hurts, you may worry. And if weeks have gone by and that toe’s not healing, something is probably wrong and you should definitely seek medical help.
Feeling bad is another form of pain that can be acute or long-lasting. If the sadness is temporary and gets better in a short time, you’re less likely to need help than if it persists and shows no sign of improvement.
Can I identify a reason for my sadness?
It’s very typical for people who are suffering from depression to feel sad “for no reason.” If you can point to a specific cause for your feelings, such as a moment when you felt belittled or hurt, that’s a different situation from just feeling down and not being able to identify a cause. It’s important to note, though, that you may benefit from help even if you can assign a reason for feeling sad. Some causes, such as a major loss, are huge and can create the conditions for depression to arise. Even situations that seem minor at the time can trigger depression.
Have I “done the basics”?
Just as there are countless home remedies for ailments like coughs and colds, so too are there many do-it-yourself treatments for sadness. These can include techniques such as getting exercise and outdoor time, eating a healthier diet, spending time with friends and family, avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and practicing mindfulness/meditation.
Such strategies can be very effective for some people and some conditions. You may benefit from trying them out. However, if you have covered these bases – or if you feel like they just wouldn’t be enough to make a meaningful difference – it may be time to consult a professional.
Is my sadness preventing me from enjoying life?
No one likes to feel sad, but when you’re unable to break out of your funk in order to enjoy life or even show up to your job or school, you likely need help. If your mood is preventing you from participating in activities that you enjoy or need to partake in, and if it’s keeping you isolated from the people you love, then it’s time to seek treatment.
How all-encompassing is my sadness?
If your sadness is pervasive, affecting absolutely every facet of your life, you could almost certainly benefit from expert treatment. Being unable to escape the funk, no matter what techniques or distractions you employ, is a sign that you may need help. And if at any point you are even considering self-harming behaviors, such as injuring yourself or committing suicide, you should get emergency help immediately.
If you’re wondering if you’re “sad enough,” you probably are.
It’s OK to feel down. We’re often told to “buck up” and adopt a stoic attitude, as though admitting to feeling pain is a sign of weakness. It isn’t.
Being sad and expressing sadness is normal, natural, and healthy. But sometimes, when the sadness gets too big, it’s too much to handle alone. If you think you may need help, chances are that you’d benefit from it. Even a brief consultation with a mental health professional may put your mind at ease. There is little risk in seeking advice; there is a lot of risk in going it alone.
If you’re wondering whether to call an ambulance for someone, call the ambulance. And if you’re wondering whether you need help, get help. There’s no shame in it.