Skip links

Resource: Explaining Depression

*This is one of a series of posts we are planning for our readers to use as a tool to help someone in their life better understand the tenets of mental health.


According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults in the United States live with a mental illness. And statistics show that in 2017 an estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. Yet, in spite of how common major depressive disorder (or clinical depression) is, many people still struggle to understand what it actually means to be clinically depressed. This particular post will focus on ways to explain major depressive disorder, both in more traditional medical jargon and in the words of those who’ve experienced it directly.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes depression as a “common but serious mood disorder” which comes in multiple forms that all cause severe symptoms that can impact how you feel, think, and deal with daily life. Persistent depressive disorder is defined as “a depressed mood that lasts for at least two years.”  Postpartum depression is “full-blown major depression during pregnancy or after delivery,” and it is serious because it “may make it difficult for these new mothers to complete daily care activities for themselves and/or for their babies.” Psychotic depression “occurs when a person has severe depression plus some form of psychosis, such as having disturbing false fixed beliefs (delusions) or hearing or seeing upsetting things that others cannot hear or see.” Seasonal affective disorder is “characterized by the onset of depression during the winter months,” recurs every year, and is “typically accompanied by social withdrawal, increased sleep, and weight gain.”

Possible symptoms include:

– persistent feelings of being “sad, anxious, or ‘empty’”

– a sense of hopelessness and/or worthlessness

– frequent irritability

– fatigue

– restlessness

– difficulty concentrating

– an unusually faulty memory

– aches and poor digestion without clear causes

– changes in sleeping patterns and appetite

– suicidal thoughts

Research suggests depression is caused by a combination of factors, including genetics, biology, environment, and psychology. A family history of depression, major life changes or traumas, and certain physical illnesses and medications are considered risk factors for developing depression.

Even armed with this information on symptoms and the commonness of major depressive disorder, it can be difficult for those who’ve not experienced it to understand what living with it can actually be like and, at times, easy to dismiss it as “just being sad”. I asked the members of our Best Friends Community how they would explain their depressive disorder to people unfamiliar with the experience.

Below are a few personalized examples they gave of ways to explain it.

“It feels like swimming against the tide and never getting closer to shore. It’s like seeing everything through a murky film; nothing makes sense, everything is confusing and colorless. It’s like trying to work through a migraine, knowing the motions so well you can get it done, but bursting into tears every time you open your eyes. Like falling through a spiral; unable to catch your breath or stop yourself from falling. Like living in a haunted house; some days it’s quiet and the sun shines through the cracks of the wood, most days it’s black and your internal monologue just won’t stop screaming at you.” – Ivy Naomi Gibbons

“It’s like being chained to the bottom of a pit that is filling up with water and being so weakened that you can’t even struggle to fight for life.” – Brittany Cartwright

“My depression is like random bouts of silence. When my depression hits I tend to sit or lay in the dark for extended periods of time. I can’t listen to music or watch TV most times. I just stare at the wall listening to the silence ringing in my ears. There is silence within me. A numbness. All I can do is sit and wait for the sound to come back again.

My anxiety is the opposite. Some days it’s the loudest thing. Music can barely drown it out. Sometimes I have to let the sound come and fill me so it can leave me alone. Other days it’s a whisper that nags in the back of my mind that something is wrong.

The only time things are calm is when my mood is stable. These days, that’s becoming an uncommon occurrence.” – Emily Lampe

“It feels like walking through gloopy mud. Except you’re up to your neck in it. It looks like the most extreme version of black and white ever. Like a stormy rainy day with zero color anywhere. It’s like trying to think through a fever and act normal when you have the worst case of the flu you’ve ever had. But no one knows you’re even sick.” – Tiff Franks

“I always tell people, rationally I know everything is ok, but the mental illness is telling me the world is falling apart around me and makes me feel like I’m stuck in the rubble. No matter how big or small the issue is.

But, since I also suffer from depression, my anxiety wants me to go look for things and deal with them but I don’t have the energy to leave my bed. So the rubble surrounding me is my depression, which keeps me from doing anything that might help my anxiety.”

“It feels like there is a solid barrier between you and your life. You’re stuck inside yourself. Like emotional paralysis. You’re talking but your mouth feels heavy. You’re hearing without listening. You’re suffocating inside of your body. Existing is unbearable and the phrase ‘I don’t want to live anymore’ is a heartbeat inside your head.” – Elizabeth Teal

Confronting an invisible disease is hard. It is even harder when those around you don’t understand what you’re going through. I hope that this article can help you, dear reader, if you ever want to explain or understand what it’s like to live with major depressive disorder. Thanks for reading!

Katie Clarke

A few words about me

Katie is a gentle soul with a snarky side who loves curries, traveling, and cats, is very afraid of losing all her friends and/or being lost at sea, and thinks cake is dreadfully overrated as a food item. She aspires to be as good a human being as she can be and to leave the world a little better than how she found it.