Many decades ago when I’d just started social work school in Boston, a friend became very sad after his wife left him for another man. I knew them both and their situation and assumed my friend was suffering from betrayal and grieving the loss of his marriage. When he continued to feel down and exhibited other distress symptoms, I finally realized that he was suffering from depression with which he still struggles to this day.
With my clinical experience now, I would have seen that he was depressed more quickly. But, even with clinical experience, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between someone simply suffering through a difficult time and someone who has mental health issues that need to be treated. And if I’m not sure of the truth as a seasoned therapist, it’s even harder to discern for people without my experience.
This dilemma is the focus of an article, What we’re getting wrong in the conversation about mental health, which begins with an anecdote describing a situation similar to the one I depict above albeit with a polar opposite ending. The author explains that her initial assessment of a friend’s unhappiness—that he was clinically depressed (like my friend, from a serious breakup)—was wrong. She realized this when over time her friend’s sadness and distress lifted and he returned to being pretty much his old self.
My point in blogging on this subject is for you to be able to see yourself and your problems clearly. It’s normal to be distressed if your child is about to have surgery or your partner lost their job and you can’t live on one salary. It’s normal to be sad after a break up or when someone you were close with has died. It’s normal to be lonely when you move to a different area or anxious when you’re about to start a new job. These are fairly universal reactions to life.
What’s not normal is to stay sad, upset, anxious, distressed or lonely for long periods of time and not be able to shake those feelings. Of course, there are no rules telling us how long is too long. There are averages from research studies that tell us how long it takes for most people to bounce back from certain situations, with some people rebounding quickly and others taking a far longer time.
You may have been deeply upset for a long time, believing that’s just your make up, and not recognize that you have a treatable mental health problem. Or you may be so used to distraction to “make your bad feelings go away” that you miss sitting with your emotions, handling them as best you can, and letting them die off on their own. The best you can do is to face the truth, including getting feedback from trusted others.