Burnout vs. Depression

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Last week, I wrote about a border case between physical and mental health, insomnia. That got me thinking about other border cases. Border cases can be hard to diagnose, which makes getting treatment difficult. As I’ve talked about before, I had trouble getting diagnosed with depression. That’s because, from where I was, I couldn’t see the whole picture. It took help from family and friends, as well as medical professionals, to get me in the right kind of treatment.

A particularly difficult border case is between burnout and depression. I know I thought my depression was burnout for quite a while before getting help. It made some amount of sense. I was working full time, raising a young kid, and getting divorced simultaneously. Nearly all of my symptoms could have been explained with burnout including my insomnia, my eating poorly, my low mood, and my lack of interest in things that I usually enjoy. I was overextended and very stressed.

How did I get past my burnout theory to arrive at depression? Well, at the time, I had no idea that the above symptoms were also symptoms of depression. My mind never looked in that direction. (That’s partly why I think this is an important conversation.) Instead, I just kept telling myself, “I just need some time off work.” But I took a vacation and had no improvement. I also kept telling myself, “I just need the divorce finalized. Then things will get better.” But the divorce was finalized with no changes in my mood.

To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I had removed two of my big stressors and didn’t feel any better. If anything, I felt even worse. Burnout couldn’t explain it anymore, certainly not the feelings of failure and worthlessness that followed the divorce. After a brief period of wondering if mourning (another border case) could explain it, I finally called my doctor. It was my GP who gave me my first depression questionnaire and got me on the path to treatment.

I think that’s why I’m writing this. The burnout theory was a dead end, but I couldn’t recognize it as such. If I had only known what to look for, I could have sought treatment earlier and maybe things wouldn’t have gotten so bad. We’ll never really know, but it’s plausible. Maybe someone is going through what I went through and will read this and get the help they need.

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