The Difference Between Grief and Depression in Teens

t times, clinicians have difficulty assessing whether an individual is clinically depressed or in a process of grieving. Of course, a recent loss would indicate that grieving might be the cause for sadness, a depressed mood, loneliness, lack of energy, and sorrow.

These two forms of psychological suffering appear to be so similar, but there is a way to distinguish the two. Certainly, depression and grieving can occur together. However, research has shown that their symptoms can be slightly different.

Teen Grief 

Yet, it gets a bit more confusing when grieving from loss lasts for an extended period of time. Complicated grief is a term used to describe when a teen has not moved through the stages of grief in a standard amount of time. Although some clinicians vary on their definition of a standard amount of time, typically, if an adolescent is still in a mourning process after six months or longer, he or she might be suffering from complicated grief. The symptoms are typically intense separation distress, intrusive and emotionally troubling thoughts about the loss of death of a loved one, a sense of meaninglessness, and the inability to accept the loss. In these cases, a parent or caregiver might watch for severe isolation, a decline in physical health, suicidal ideation, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Learn more about teen grief and loss treatment by following this link.

It is easy to see that symptoms of an ongoing grieving process can begin to look a lot like depression, and often, the two go hand in hand. However, psychologist Kay Jamison, in her book, Nothing Was the Same, noted a distinction between the two. She pointed out that when a person has the ability to be consoled, he or she is more likely to be grieving versus depressed. According to research, depression and grieving can occur together and that the presence of depression during the grieving process can delay the resolution of grief, leading to the circumstances of complicated grief, described above.

Jamison provides the example that one might be able to be consoled through poetry while grieving a loss. However, if he or she were experiencing depression, poetry would serve no purpose in bringing a relief of symptoms.

Treatment of Grief 

The treatment process of grief is a fairly recent addition to the mental health field. Previously, grief was incorporated into the treatment of other mental illnesses. However, in the 1970’s, grief counseling began to emerge. Certainly, the book by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, titled Death and Dying in 1969, could have implemented this change. She outlined five distinct stages to the grieving process based on her long-time work with her own clients. These stages form the acronym DABDA for easy recollection in their order. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Another popular theory in the treatment of grief is the four steps developed by psychologist J.W. Worden. He theorized that the four tasks to grieving are accepting the reality of the loss, working through the pain of grief, adjusting to life without the deceased (or loss), and maintaining a connection to the deceased (or loss) while moving on with life.

The process of grieving is not linear. Whether working with the stages developed by Kubler Ross or Worden, knowing them can serve as a map of the challenging road that grieving presents. It can aid in the treatment process of healing and moving on with life.

Treatment of Depression

On the other hand, the symptoms and treatment of depression is different. The symptoms you might see in a teen include declining grades, poor concentration, and disturbances in sleep, such as sleeping too much or very little. It is worth noting that depression not only affects mood but thinking as well. It is common for depressed teenagers to suffer from poor grades because their concentration is impaired, and with this the ability to register and retrieve information weakens. The same is true with eating. Consumption of food will either greatly increase or dramatically decline. Teen depression treatment is different than grieving teens and can be difficult to distinguish the differences.

When you ask your teen about whether he might be feeling depressed or sad, he actually may not be able to identify a painful mental state. Instead, he might express a physical ailment, such as a headache or stomachache. Other symptoms of depression include

Major Depressive Disorder is considered to be a medical illness that includes symptoms of persistent sadness, loss of interest in daily activities, occupational and educational impairment, along with eventual emotional and physical problems. It usually requires long-term treatment, including psychotherapy and medication.


Although teen grief  and depression might reveal similar symptoms, they are different illness and need to be treated differently. As Jamison pointed out in her book, one distinction between the two is your teen’s ability to be consoled.

Further Reading