Heartbreak-Related Depression: Does It Exist?

heartbreak-related depression
Heartbreak, Self

A bad breakup leaves you depressed and anxious. So what's normal sadness and what's real depression?

In December 2009, Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley's 24-year-old daughter Alexa Ray Joel was rushed to the hospital after swallowing a handful of homeopathic pain pills.

But just as curious as Joel's behavior was the explanation she gave for it: a bad case of "Heartbreak-Related Depression." 

"I have many exciting new developments for the New Year," Joel, a singer, wrote on her Facebook page on December 31. "Most importantly, [helping] young girls with something I feel I know a GREAT deal about: Heartbreak-Related Depression." 

When Joel took the pills on December 5, she had been upset over her break-up with her "first love," 38-year-old musician and former band-mate Jimmy Riot, her publicist confirmed for YourTango.com. Alexa herself is not doing interviews for the next several weeks because "she is concentrating on getting better," her publicist added.

What Is Heartbreak-Related Depression?
Almost everyone has suffered the pain of a bad breakup, to the point that it has become a cliché in American pop culture: first you cry your heart out, then you watch a bad movie on Lifetime or TBS while digging into a pint of Ben & Jerry's, followed by a little drunk dialing or nowadays, Facebook-stalking.

Not everyone who breaks up experiences actual depression, a clinical disorder affecting an estimated 18.8 million adult Americans during any one-year period, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And "Heartbreak-Related Depression" does not currently exist as a clinically diagnosable form of depression. So what was Joel suffering from? Heartbreak, depression or a hybrid of the two?

"I would not call it 'Heartbreak-Related Depression,'" says California-based psychotherapist Tina Tessina, who has not treated Alexa. "I'd call it grief, complicated by low-self esteem and suicidal ideation. The appropriate reaction to a breakup is grief about the loss and anger at the ex. Attempting suicide in the aftermath indicates a much worse problem than heartbreak." Prescription for Heartbreak

While many have speculated that taking a handful of homeopathic pain pills was more of a cry for help than a true suicide attempt, Tessina says she would guess that Alexa has a self-esteem problem, and that the relationship probably eroded her confidence even further. Then, the breakup was a trigger for her to punish herself.

"Suicide and depression are two different things. Depression is emotional exhaustion, and the sufferer is usually too debilitated to do much of anything. Suicide attempts are both a cry for help and anger turned inward, at the self," says Tessina.