Situational depression is triggered by a specific stressor and is not permanent, whereas clinical depression is more severe and long-lasting.

Situational depression, or adjustment disorder, is prompted by a significant change in a person’s life, such as the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one or the loss of a relationship. Other significant changes can include an accident, traumatic episode or other considerable life change. Situational depression is not long-lasting and symptoms typically tend to resolve themselves within several months of the event.

Situational depression has some similarities to clinical depression, which is also known as major depressive disorder, especially as it pertains to symptoms. However, clinical depression is more severe and symptoms are not necessarily connected to a particular event.

What Is Situational Depression?

Situational depression, also known as adjustment disorder, is a condition that involves depressed mood and is triggered by a stressor that is representative of a major life change. The situational depression definition refers to an individual who has trouble coping or adapting to a particular life event. The nature of the stress that prompts situational depression differs from person to person, but the emotional response to the stressor is atypical to what is commonly expected. Symptoms may cause impairment in a person’s daily functioning.

Situational depression does not last long and is not a permanent condition. A person with situational depression experiences symptoms that are in direct response to the life event or change. Symptoms usually start within three months of the event and commonly do not persist longer than six months after the life event has concluded.    

Prevalence of Situational Depression

Situational depression is one of the most commonly used diagnosis in clinical practice, but is understudied and has limited research. Situational depression statistics show that the disorder is extremely common and impacts people regardless of culture, gender or age. 

Situational depression is equally prevalent in men and women and varies in development and expression in different cultures. The prevalence of situational depression diagnosed in primary care facilities ranges from 3-10%, while the prevalence ranges from 5-20% in outpatient mental health treatment facilities and 50% or higher in-hospital psychiatric screenings.

Situational depression statistics show that there is a 1-2% prevalence of situational depression in the general population in the United States. Another study shows that the prevalence of situational depression in a multinational (Finland, Ireland, Norway, and Spain) study is 0.2-1% 

Situational Depression vs. Clinical Depression

The main difference between situational depression and clinical depression is that symptoms with situational depression are always in response to a specific stressor, resolve when the stressor ends and do not meet the diagnostic criteria for a major depressive episode. Clinical depression does not have to be prompted by a certain stressor and can occur with or without it. 

Despite differences, when comparing situational vs. clinical depression, there is considerable overlap in symptoms. A person with situational depression will likely struggle with similar symptoms as a person with clinical depression, such as feelings of sadness, tearfulness, and hopelessness. However, the symptoms of situational depression are of a much lower severity level and rarely include thoughts of suicide or self-harm.  

Another difference between situational depression vs. major depressive disorder is that a person with clinical depression is more likely to have difficulties in their daily functioning. Difficulties can occur in academic, occupational or interpersonal settings.

Symptoms of Situational Depression

Situational depression symptoms are similar to the symptoms of clinical depression and vary from person to person. Symptoms always portray a significant change from a person’s general state of functioning. Symptoms can either be emotional, physical or behavioral in nature. Children and teenagers often act out and show more behavioral symptoms, while adults commonly display more emotional symptoms. 

Signs of situational depression can include:

  • Sadness and frequent tearfulness
  • Anxiety and apprehension
  • Detachment and isolation from others
  • Fatigue and a lack of energy
  • Disrupted eating and sleeping habits
  • Headaches 
  • Stomach issues
  • Heart palpitations

Causes of Situational Depression

The causes of situational depression are always related to stress and can be both positive or negative in nature. Causes can either stem from one traumatic event or from a number of different situations.

Stressful events that can trigger situational depression can include:

  • The birth of a baby, adoption or addition of a new family member
  • Illness or death of a friend, family member or loved one
  • Changes in a marriage or relationship, such as fighting, separation or divorce
  • Financial changes, such as bankruptcy, the loss of employment or retirement
  • Going away to college or moving to a new house
  • A traumatic episode, such as a car accident, natural disaster or assault

Diagnosing Situational Depression

Mental health conditions are diagnosed by criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th revision (ICD-10).

Mental health professionals use these two guides when diagnosing situational depression. For example, DSM-5 situational depression and situational depression ICD-10 criteria include: 

  • Emotional or behavioral symptoms occurring within three months of a life event
  • Exaggerated response to a stressor
  • Significant impact on interpersonal relationships
  • Symptoms are not the result of another mental health disorder

A medical practitioner may conduct situational depression tests to rule out medical causes or other mental health disorders, such as major depressive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Treatment for Situational Depression

Situational depression treatment is important, as situational depression can potentially turn into a clinical depression in individuals who have risk factors for developing a mood disorder. Situational depression can also elevate a person’s risk for suicide and can lead to substance abuse if a person uses alcohol or drugs to help manage their symptoms. More mild cases of situational depression may not require treatment, as symptoms may resolve themselves.

Psychotherapy is the preferred method of treatment for situational depression and can help a person to understand and process how a stressor has impacted their lives. Therapy can help a person to problem-solve and provide them with healthy coping skills, interventions, and techniques. Support groups may also be recommended for a person struggling with situational depression, as extra support and validation can be received from others who are experiencing similar challenges. 

At times, situational depression medication may be prescribed to help individuals to manage feelings of sadness, sleeping difficulties or anxiety. Antidepressant medications or anti-anxiety medications are most often prescribed by medical providers. 

With proper treatment, most individuals are able to successfully overcome situational depression. Situational depression often resolves with the passage of time, as circumstances improve and when the person learns how to manage the triggering stressor.

The majority of people make a complete recovery and learn new coping mechanisms that allow them to improve their overall functioning as they move forward. Recovery occurs when a person learns how to effectively cope with a new life change. 

If you or a loved one struggle with substance abuse and co-occurring depression, don’t wait to get help. Call The Recovery Village today to learn about our programs that treat addiction and mental health issues simultaneously. 

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
Tracy Smith is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Nationally Certified Counselor, an Approved Clinical Supervisor, and a mental health freelance and ghostwriter. Read more

Cirino, Erica. “Understanding Situational Depression.” Healthline, May 9, 2017. Accessed June 21, 2019.

Lal, Rachna, M.D.; Mackinnon, Dean F., M.D. “Adjustment Disorder.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, October 29, 2017.  Accessed June 21, 2019.

Wu, Brian. “Situational Depression or Clinical Depression?” Medical News Today, September 28, 2018. Accessed June 21, 2019.

Zelviene, Paulina; Kazlauskas, Evaldas. “Adjustment Disorder: Current Perspectives.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, January 25, 2018. Accessed June 21, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.