Can Breakups Cause Depression?
Feeling down after a breakup is normal, but when does a low mood count as depression? Here’s what we know about breakup depression—and how we know healing is possible.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
Updated: November 28, 2023
Table of Contents
Many young people deal with breakups. One 2009 study aimed at understanding how common breakups were in adolescence found that 23% of 910 young people surveyed had experienced a breakup. Although the study is old and the results don’t necessarily represent the broader population, its findings signal one thing: Teen breakups are likely very common. But that doesn’t make the pain and distress easier to manage.
Feeling a lot of emotion after a breakup is a very human experience, but when does a low mood after a breakup count as breakup depression? Can you get diagnosed with depression because of a breakup? In this article, we’re separating post-breakup depression from other clinical diagnoses, explaining other related phenomena like grief and adjustment disorder, and uplifting evidence-based treatments for adolescents with depression of any kind.
Can a breakup cause depression?
In short, yes. Every individual’s reaction to a romantic relationship breakup will be different, but it’s possible to get depression-like symptoms after a relationship ends. Difficult situations can bring up strong emotions. However, how long it’s been since the breakup, the quality of the relationship and feelings of betrayal have been identified by research as some of the strongest related predictors of distress after breakups among young people.
Whether or not a romantic breakup can cause a major depressive episode or major depressive disorder (MDD, now commonly referred to as unipolar depressive disorder) is a different question. However, several large studies say yes. A 2021 review concluded that relationship dissolution may increase the risk for mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, as well as substance use symptoms and disorders. The risks may be especially high in the month right after a breakup.
More specifically, one study published in 2013 investigated what stressful life events may predict depression symptoms in adolescence. Among the 2,163 freshmen college students in Puerto Rico, people who reported the breakup of a significant relationship were more than twice as likely to report moderate to severe depression than those who didn’t report a breakup as a stressful life event. Similarly, the results of a 1999 study conducted among 1,470 older adolescents suggested that going through a breakup may increase the likelihood of having an initial onset of MDD while in adolescence.
Research has found that several relationship or breakup characteristics may contribute to the intensity of changes in psychological distress and life satisfaction. Living together and having plans for marriage are associated with more dramatic declines, while a new relationship is associated with less dramatic declines. Declines in mental health after a breakup, however, are often temporary, according to studies.
What are the signs of depression after a breakup?
Depression, which refers to a major depressive episode, unipolar depressive disorder, and other depressive disorders, can look different from person to person. Someone may be diagnosed as having a major depressive episode if they experience five or more of the following symptoms for at least two weeks, with one of the symptoms being either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure:
- Depressed mood for most of the day, almost every day. This may feel like sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness in adults. Among young people, this can appear more as irritability.
- Noticeably decreased interest or pleasure in activities for most of the day, almost every day.
- Significant unintended weight or appetite changes or not gaining expected weight in children.
- Significant sleep problems almost every day.
- Agitated or slowed movements almost every day.
- Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day.
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guiltiness.
- Decreased ability to think, concentrate, or make decisions nearly every day.
- Recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts.
In order to be diagnosed with a major depressive episode, the symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in daily life. They must also not be caused by substances or another medical condition and not have experienced manic or hypomanic episodes. Also, if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or are in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency. Contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 24/7 by calling or texting 988.
What’s the difference between depression and grief after a breakup?
Grief is a collection of strong, often painful, feelings that follow a significant loss, like a death, natural disaster, or serious medical issues. The diagnostic criteria of major depressive episodes (covered in detail in a later section) consider depressive symptoms separate from grief—meaning depression after a breakup is technically separate from grief after a breakup.
That said, it doesn’t exclude the possibility that people may feel grief after a breakup, especially since, for some people, a breakup may feel like a significant loss. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the main differences between grief and a major depressive episode are as follows:
- Grief may come in spurts, while depression is consistent with major depressive episodes.
- Grief may not impact self-esteem, while low self-esteem in depression is common.
What’s the difference between depression after a breakup and adjustment disorder?
Adjustment disorder after a breakup
Depression after a breakup
A stress-related condition with symptoms appearing within three months of a stressor (including a breakup), lasting up to six months after it ends, and often coexisting with other mental health issues.
A persistent and overwhelming feeling of sadness, hopelessness, and emotional distress following the end of a romantic relationship.
Adjustment disorder is a stress-related disorder marked by significant emotional or behavioral symptoms triggered within three months of a stressor (or stressors). In order to meet diagnostic criteria for adjustment disorder, the symptoms must not meet the criteria for another mental health condition, be related to exacerbation of a mental health condition, or be caused by bereavement (death of a loved one). After the stressor has ended, symptoms shouldn’t last more than another six months. Adjustment disorder is often diagnosed along with other mental health conditions. However, since there is a lot of overlap, the mental health professional is encouraged to differentiate between clinical depression and adjustment disorder.
How to heal from depression after a breakup
The two recommended psychotherapy modalities for adolescents with depression are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy for adolescents (IPT-A). CBT is a type of psychotherapy focused on identifying problems, recognizing how behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected, and changing unhelpful patterns. (IPT-A) is a type of psychotherapy focused on improving the relationships and circumstances contributing to symptoms.
The first-line medication for depression in adolescents is an antidepressant called fluoxetine (branded as Prozac). Fluoxetine is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which means it works by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin and increasing serotonin activity. Serotonin is a chemical messenger that’s produced by the brain and involved in mood.
Getting support for depression at Charlie Health
Think you might be experiencing clinical depression after a breakup? Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) encompasses a high level of support for young people dealing with mental health issues that disrupt their daily lives, including depression after a breakup. Within the IOP, young people can access individual therapy, family therapy, supported group sessions, and medication management as needed to begin feeling better.
Our team of clinicians pulls from therapeutic modalities like CBT, IPT-A, and other evidence-based therapies to personalize the right care plan for each individual. They specialize in treating depressive disorders and other mental health conditions with a compassionate and trauma-informed approach. Notably, after treatment with Charlie Health, clients reported a significant decrease in depressive symptoms.
Because Charlie Health is 100% online and accepts major insurance and many Medicaid plans, it’s an accessible option for high-level care that doesn’t interrupt school, work, or other important obligations. If you or a loved one are wondering if Charlie Health might be a good fit, fill out this short form to take the first step today. We’re available 24/7 to answer questions and get you started.