May is Mental Health Month and an appropriate time to talk about an issue I see quite often in my practice this time of year.

May is Mental Health Month and an appropriate time to talk about an issue I see quite often in my practice this time of year.

Our lives are full of events and situations bringing about uncertainty and loss. This time of the year can be especially trying. Whether you’re graduating from high school or college, getting married, joining the military, losing a job or starting a new job, change brings stress.

Nearly half of us will experience this in our lifetime, but for 10 percent of adults and 30 percent of adolescents this type of stress brought about by loss and change can cause significant feelings of sadness, hopelessness, exhaustion and a loss of interest in work  or activities.

This is a short-term mood disorder, sometimes referred to as situational depression or adjustment disorder, and is directly related to life changes. While the symptoms are much like depression, this disorder is caused by an outside stressor. It does not usually last long and is generally resolved once the individual is able to adapt to the new situation.

The condition is also different from anxiety disorder, which lacks the presence of a stressor, or post-traumatic stress disorder which is typically associated with a life-threatening stressor.

A person with adjustment disorder develops emotional and sometimes behavioral symptoms generally within three months of the event and the symptoms rarely last longer than six months after the event or situation.

If someone is experiencing adjustment disorder, reactions to the loss or change are greater than what is typical or would be expected for the situation.

Triggers can include:

Major life change (marriage, parenthood or retirement)

End of a relationship or marriage

Losing or changing a job

Death of a loved one

Serious illness

Victim of crime

Accidents

Living through a disaster, such as a fire or flood

Many of my patients experiencing adjustment disorder describe feeling tired and run down. They may have trouble sleeping, eating and sometimes lack motivation in activities they normally enjoy.  

Other symptoms of adjustment disorder may include:

Feeling of hopelessness

Sadness

Frequent crying

Nervousness

Excessive worrying

Headaches or stomachaches

Heart palpitations

Isolation from people and social activities

Absence from work or school

Destructive behavior, such as fighting, reckless driving and vandalism

Loss of appetite or overeating

Difficulty sleeping

Feeling tired or lacking energy

Increased use of alcohol or drugs

Symptoms in children and teens tend to be more behavioral in nature, such as skipping school, fighting or acting out, while adults tend to experience more emotional symptoms, such as sadness and anxiety.

If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be a good time to check in with your primary physician. Your doctor may want to run some tests such as blood tests or X-rays in order to rule out any physical illness that may be causing your symptoms.

The good news is that adjustment disorder is very treatable. Often the best course of action for situational depression is counseling with a mental health professional. In some cases, you may temporarily need medication to help control anxiety and difficulty sleeping.

The goal of treatment is to help you cope with your stress and get back to your life.

You should know that most people feel completely better within about six months after the stressful event.

However, it is important to seek help, because situational depression can lead to a more severe form of depression or substance abuse if left untreated. For many people with situational depression, the coping skills they learn in treatment can become valuable tools to help them face other challenges in their future.