What Is Situational Depression? Oprah Opens Up About Extreme Sadness

Photo: Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock.
In a new interview with Vogue, Oprah Winfrey reminded us that yes, she really is human and even she is susceptible to bouts of extreme sadness.
“I shall never forget Saturday morning, October 17,” Winfrey told Vogue. It was the day after the movie version of Beloved, staring Winfrey, opened in theaters in 1998. “I got a call from someone at the studio, and they said, ‘It’s over. You got beat by Chucky.’ And I said, ‘Who’s Chucky? What do you mean it’s over?"
Her movie failed at the box-office. “And soooo began my long plunge into food and depression and suppressing all my feelings,” Winfrey told Vogue.
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But there's an important distinction between chronic, clinical depression and having a bad emotional stretch tied to a particular moment. Later in the interview, Winfrey said that her depression lasted six weeks, until she stopped worrying so much about how Beloved was doing at the box office. "That’s when the gratitude practice became really strong for me,” she told Vogue. “Because it’s hard to remain sad if you’re focused on what you have instead of what you don’t have.”
While it's definitely possible for a disappointing or traumatic event — like seeing a project you've been excited about fail — to trigger extreme sadness, it's not the same as having clinical depression. Clinical depression isn't something that clears up in six weeks by trying to look on the bright side.
Instead, experts call moments like the one Winfrey experienced — sadness after a divorce, the death of a loved one, or losing a job — "situational depression."
"Situational depression is usually considered an adjustment disorder rather than true depression," Chris Iliades, MD, wrote for Everyday Health. "But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored."
If left untreated for too long, situational depression can sometimes become clinical depression, Iliades wrote. Treatment can include counseling with a mental health professional, or even medication if the symptoms are severe.
"I actually started to think, 'Maybe I really am depressed,'" Winfrey told Vogue. "Because it’s more than 'I feel bad about this.' I felt like I was behind a veil."
Unlike clinical depression — which causes persistent feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, sadness, loss of interest, fatigue, and other symptoms regardless of whether or not a person went through a traumatic event — situational depression can usually be overcome "by making changes in their attitudes, their daily behaviors, and their interpersonal functioning," Iliades wrote.
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Women are often told their feelings are too much — that if they fall into a bout of sadness after a breakup or losing a job or some other disappointment, they just need to stop being so dramatic and move on with life. But as Winfrey's story shows, it's not always easy to brush failures off. Situational depression is a real thing, and even though it can be cleared up in just a few short weeks doesn't mean that the feelings shouldn't be taken seriously.
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.
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