The Difference Between Sadness & Depression

What’s the difference between depression and sadness? Here’s what every parent needs to know.


Sadness is something a mentally healthy person should feel…when parents are fighting, money is tight, a grandparent dies, a girlfriend breaks up, a bully belittles, a “friend” gossips, failures pile on…

Sane people feel sad. Sometimes very sad.

Christians especially.

Jesus saw the crowds in need and felt compassion. “Com” means together or with. “Passion” means to suffer. Jesus “suffered with” those who suffered. And Jesus lives in me today. So when I see someone left out, read the news of a tragedy in West, hear of the bombing in Boston, learn about slavery or poverty…well, I should grieve with those who grieve. Jesus in me has compassion through me, and mourns the brokenness that spills out of Eden and out across humanity.

Teenagers aren’t little kids anymore. They’re more in tune with what’s happening in their parents’ marriage, in the family’s finances, in the world at-large than they were as children. They may, for the first time, encounter peers who don’t like them and let them know about it. They may feel, for the first time, like outsiders, like they’re not understood. They face deadlines, busyness and stress they haven’t before. Add to all this that disorienting cocktail of topsy-turvy hormones bubbling inside and, well, a healthy teenager should be sad sometimes.

Depression is very different from sadness.


“Clinical depression” and “major depression” are medical terms used to describe a condition characterized by some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Profound sadness (often without reason) lasting at least two weeks
  • Fatigue or loss of energy most days – if not every
  • Insomnia (inability to sleep)
  • Hypersomnia (excessive sleep)
  • Anhedonia (inability to feel interest or pleasure in any activity)
  • Feeling physically slower. As if you have a two year-old wrapped around each leg.
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • Inability to concentrate, remember details, make decisions, process logical thoughts or respond as quickly as usual.
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain (5% or more).
  • Aches and pains (similar to the flu’s body aches), cramps, digestive problems that are not eased with treatment.
  • Overwhelming feelings of insignificance, guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, anxiety, emptiness.
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Irritability
  • Slow speech
  • Crying spells (for no reason)

See A Doctor

Depression is a medical problem. See a doctor first. A doctor can quickly run tests to rule out conditions that can cause symptoms of depression (thyroid dysfunction, low iron levels, etc). A doctor can also prescribe antidepressants, if necessary.

I didn’t take antidepressants because double-blind peer-reviewed studies have shown them to be less effective than 5 HTP (a naturally occurring amino acid that the body turns into seratonin and melatonin for improved mood regulation and better rest). Antidepressants are also outperformed by 30 minutes of daily exercise. And the list of side-effects for antidepressants just freaked me out.

Depression Isn’t Just Physical

So, I took 5-HTP; walked 30 minutes to an hour every day; improved my diet by eliminating most processed food and eating fruits, vegetables, nuts and salmon. This is how my doctor and I treated depression’s physical causes.

But I also got serious about my spiritual health and saw a Christian therapist for my emotional health. (You can read about all of this in more detail here.)

Depression is a sickness. Like diabetes or high blood-pressure. Medical help is crucial. And, for me, therapy and nutrition and spiritual help were also vital to my recovery.

Treating Sadness Like Depression

There’s a reason a person is sad. Sadness may only be eased with time. Therapy or some life-change may be needed as well. But medicine isn’t. And when we attemtp to medicate a child’s sadness away we are robbing them of the opportunity to develop deeper character and important coping skills…

  • Identifying what they’re feeling and why
  • Communicating what they’re feeling to others
  • Asking God and people for help
  • Putting problems into proper perspective
  • Not retreating from community but relying on it instead
  • Being mindful of negative thoughts and redirecting them toward gratitude and problem solving
  • Cultivating present-mindedness and gratitude

Understanding the difference between depression and sadness helps us treat both appropriately.

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