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How to tell if you’re depressed or ‘just’ have the COVID-blues

The pandemic has been tough on everyone in one way or another. Nadine Tuback asked clinical psychologist Romy Kunitz what you can do to safeguard your mental health.

About a decade ago, I suffered a real, debilitating, life-altering depression. To say I was blindsided is an under-exaggeration of mammoth proportions akin to saying COVID-19 is just ‘the flu’.

Before this, if I heard of someone with a mental illness, I truly believed all they needed was a lot of support and inspiring pep talks. I also threw out the expression ‘I’m so depressed I’ve put on 2kg/my holidays are over/insert any other inane reason here’ way too lightly. And did I get a rude awakening! Because if you’ve never been through it, you cannot know. And now that I have, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

However, now that I’m ‘on the other side’ (I think I will never truly be over it as I constantly fear it recurring), I’m grateful for what it has taught me about myself and the empathy it has given me for people who suffer with poor mental health. While I don’t want it to ever happen again, I’m glad it did because it has taught me what to look out for.

So I was petrified – for myself and other vulnerable people – when COVID-19 hit. From job losses and homeschooling stress – not to forget the fear of you or a loved one actually getting coronavirus – to being stuck in lockdown indefinitely and having our sanity-savers like gym workouts snatched away from us – it was the perfect cauldron for anxiety and depression to bubble.

“Feeling low, anxious or even depressed in the circumstances is totally normal,” assures clinical psychologist Romy Kunitz. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone NOT affected. But what I wanted to know was how do you tell the difference? How do you tell if you have clinical depression or simply the COVID-blues?

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The bottom line… at the top

The deeper I got into my conversation with Romy, the more I realised that it doesn’t matter whether it’s clinical depression or a low feeling stemming from the pandemic and all its byproducts. The symptoms are so similar, she explains, that it’s equally important to address both… and, even more importantly, not to dismiss the ‘blues’.

In fact, the lines are so blurred, blues can very well turn into something more serious and it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. There are many factors at play. For example, what was your mental state like pre-COVID? Had you suffered from depression before? How have you been affected personally by the crisis? And the questions go on and on. Because even if you weren’t susceptible pre-coronavirus, doesn’t mean you’ll be spared, either.

Which is why Romy emphasises the importance of taking it seriously either way.

“Depression has many causes,” she explains. “Factors such as, life-event stressors, substances you may take, such as drugs or alcohol, and physical conditions can also affect the way your brain regulates your moods.”

Depression manifests itself in neurovegetative symptoms, she says. This is when your sleep, appetite and mood are negatively affected. And these symptoms (whether all three at once or a combination) need to be present to get a diagnosis of clinical depression.

Every person is different, but certainly many, if not most, people’s sleep, appetite and mood would have been affected in some way during the pandemic. And this is why the depression/blues question can cause a lot of confusion, Romy says.

“COVID can tip this over the edge, especially if you suffered from depression prior,” she adds. “Owing to the fact that COVID results in loss, this may cause changes in mood and can present in the same way. It can be a trigger for a depressed/anxious state, but if it intensifies over a two-week period and symptoms worsen, it could result in more of a chronic major depressive state.”

“Don’t panic”

While this all sounds pretty scary, Romy’s message is clear: “Don’t panic!”

What’s important is to be aware of the changes in your sleep/mood/appetite and if these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, to seek help. If it is ‘just COVID Blues’ then your symptoms may very well be temporary, she points out, but you’ll want to treat them all the same.

“The treatment would be much the same – seeking professional counselling and going on to medication. A combined approach is more beneficial, although a GP needs to assess whether or not it is necessary,” she says.

“Owing to the fact that COVID is a temporary situation – besides the overwhelming long-term effects – treatment may be more transient in nature. You need to understand the fact that it is a trauma and a major life-stressor. As such it will result in changes in mood and will require you to adopt certain coping mechanisms.”

She stresses, though, that if you do not seek professional help it’s important to talk about your feelings and what you’re going through, even if it’s just with family or friends.

And there are plenty of other things you can do (or coping mechanisms you can adopt, as Romy says) yourself to help the process along. Whether that’s yoga, baking, going for a walk or run, getting a pet, or chilling on the couch with a good book, find what lifts your mood and make the effort to do those things, even if you really don’t want to.

I know when I was depressed all I wanted to do was lie in bed and sleep my days away. But by forcing myself to get up, eat something and maybe even do a bit of exercise helped – and gradually the happy moments started outnumbering the sad ones. Here’s hoping that happens soon for you, too.

If you have noticed any changes in your sleep, appetite or mood, please see your GP for advice. You can also call the Beyond Blue helpline on 1300 22 4636 or have an online chat with one of their counsellors.