Are You Burned Out Or Just Depressed?


May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’re focusing on providing solutions, resources, and support for overall wellness, especially emotional wellness. Unfortunately, many Americans find themselves tired, burnt out, and depressed, but they’re not sure why.

Burnout and depression can indeed look very similar. They present in very similar ways, such as fatigue, lethargy, loss of sleep or appetite, irritability or sadness, anxiety, apathy, mental fog, bodily aches and pains, and social avoidance/isolation, to name a few. However, burnout and depression are distinct phenomena.

According to therapist, Linda Mensah, Burnout is an overall feeling of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion that arises from prolonged exposure to high levels of stress, typically within one’s job. The important thing to focus on here is that there is typically a clear cause-and-effect relationship between a particular stimulus and the presentation of burnout. If that stimulus is removed, such as leaving that stressful job, no longer participating in that particular activity, or changing your routine and workload, the burnout symptoms will likely subside if not entirely disappear.

Depression, however, is much more complex. Depression itself is sort of an umbrella term or category that contains a range of emotional conditions such as burnout, mild depression, and major/clinical depression, as well as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), postpartum depression, etc. While some depressive episodes are linked to environmental factors — such as burnout and work, or SAD and seasonal changes — they may also be linked to hormones, genetics, and brain chemistry. In such cases, treatments may not be as clear-cut as simply reducing or removing a particular stimulus.

Mensah continues to clarify that depression, specifically namely major depression — may include an aspect or advanced state of suicidality or self-harm. People who are experiencing depression may have addictions, engage in self-harm, or contemplate taking their own lives. Suicide is sometimes seen as an option because some may see themselves as a burden to others or feel such extreme levels of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion that death seems like the only means of respite or reprieve.

She believes that burnout is a stop on the continuum of depression but doesn’t necessarily need to become depression. However, if you are recognizing any indications of burnout and depression in yourself, the most important thing to do is reach out for help. Number one, because we want to try our best to nip it in the bud as early as possible; and number two, because it isn’t always so easy to see what came first – burnout or depression. 

The main takeaway is to avoid getting too caught up in the weeds of trying to self-diagnose what is what. It is better to seek help from a trusted mental health practitioner, community member, or elder and begin to sift through those details and treatment options together. 

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