Mental health advocacy has become a subject that I am passionate about, and will probably be one that features heavily on this blog. I spend a lot of my spare time just learning about different conditions. More specifically the ways that these conditions affect sufferers in their day to day life. I suppose one of the reasons that I am so interested in mental health is because of the shame attached to it. Shame that isn’t attached to other illnesses.
As a medical student I spend arguably too much time learning about the various ways the body fails us. There’s no Nobel Prize for discerning that any part of the body can fail us. Still, even among medical students when the dialogue turns to mental health, often the first thing people assume is that the person is malingering. As someone who suffers from depression, that assumption really hurts.
To make matters worse as a “mental health advocate”, I still at times feel uncomfortable when it comes to speaking about my own experience with depression. Its counterproductive! How can I work towards destigmatising something by refusing to talk about it.
If you ask me the generic “mental health is stigmatised”, statement is starting to lose meaning. We need real dialogue about the misconceptions around these conditions. So here are 7 misconceptions about depression.
- If you are depressed it’s your fault for not thinking positively
We now live in the era of self-help which is not a bad thing at all. I think we should all try to get more in tune with ourselves on an emotional level, instead of distracting ourselves with work, TV, alcohol, to be honest the list goes on. However that being said with this “you can fix all your problems with kale, meditation and positive thinking” narrative comes a narrative of blame for those who have not achieved the same level of “peace”.
The truth is the cause of depression is not fully understood, according to health professionals it is due to a mixture of environmental and biological factors and the ratio of either of these varies from individual to individual because we are all different. Moreover at times people can trace their depression to a clear event e.g. a bereavement and other times (as in my case), it seemingly comes out of nowhere. So if healthcare professionals are not completely certain as to the cause of depression, who are you to tell me that it’s because of my state of mind?
Of course there may be some with milder depression who find that meditating and thinking positively really helps them. But on the flip side there are others who are physically incapable of thinking positively. One of the symptoms of depression is a feeling of hopelessness. Some people cannot just wish the depression away, and if they are depressed chances are they already feel guilty for feeling down, so blaming them is only going to make things worse.
- Again, think positively, you’ll get over it.
I know what you’re thinking, MIRA you’ve already mentioned that one, but here I am coming at it from a slightly different angle. This one is about all the suggestions people have for being able to fix your depression such as just thinking positively, or keeping yourself distracted.
Of course there is space for these things when it comes to managing depression, but like many illnesses depression comes in different severities. Sometimes at its worst people are consumed with thoughts of death, unable to think of anything else. They physically cannot get out of bed, to prepare a meal, to brush their teeth or have a shower. Before offering advice have you: taken the time to get to know how exactly depression manifests itself within them, done research on clinically proven means of treating depression? If not then the advice, could do more harm than good. Let me explain.
Although some may say, ” well I am just trying to help, no harm done”. Sometimes when people act as if the answer is that simple it can leave the depressed person feeling like they were not listened to, that you don’t appreciate the weightiness of their load. Other times it can leave the depressed person feeling guilty that the suggestion of “just thinking positively” didn’t work for them. “What’s wrong with me they say, why can’t I just get over this like everyone says.”
It is okay not to know how to fix things, you don’t have to suggest an answer, sometimes it is okay just to listen.
- But you don’t look depressed, you’re always smiling
To be honest, I find this one quite funny, because it really reaffirms how little depression is understood. I often wonder what people think depressed people are like? Crying all day and walking around with a permanent upside down smile?
The truth of this world is this, it keeps spinning no matter what people are going through. The fact that someone gets into a car accident doesn’t change the fact that their child is still waiting for them to come pick them up outside the school gates. The fact that a sports player breaks a bone doesn’t mean none of the other players can compete in the competition. Life goes on irrespective of how we feel. Sufferers of chronic illness knows this, so they try their best to assimilate. In the case of depression, a condition that makes you feel empty and hopeless, other obligations such as going to work, being nice and friendly with the neighbours, still exist.
Sometimes when you smile its genuine, but otherwise it’s just you trying to put on a brave face. We’ve all done it. We all say we are fine when the opposite has been true. So really we shouldn’t expect all smiles to be real.
- That you don’t have depression. It isn’t as serious as you are making out and you are doing it all for attention
Probably the most annoying in my opinion, I think this is just bloody rude (excuse my French). However, I am still going to have to tread carefully with this point as I realise that I am privileged to have access to mostly free healthcare. I was able to easily see a primary care physician who was able to diagnose me and provide me with different treatment options. However some people are not able to get an official diagnosis. In my opinion though, this does not refute the validity of their symptoms.
Even if someone tells you that they have not had a formal diagnosis of depression, but they tell you how they have been feeling, believe them! It takes a lot of courage to admit that perhaps you are not coping, and if someone feels comfortable enough to tell you what they are going through, the least you could do is treat them courteously and not accuse them of lying in anyway. Of course I am not inferring that you should become the individuals personal counsellor, allowing them to offload all their problems on to you, by all means only do what you can. Think about your mental wellbeing too! However, telling someone that they do not have depression or that they are being dramatic does more harm than good.
I have to be honest and say that with depression the stakes are high, as much as we don’t like to talk about it, suicide can be a consequence of depression. Reasons for this include a person feeling trapped, seeing no way out, and feeling that they world would be a better place without them. What a depressed individual really needs is reassurance that someone cares and someone to listen to them, but how can they do that when they know people believe that they are making their symptoms up?
- Depression is being sad
This is a close second in terms of the ability to boil my blood. Especially when people say : “well we all get depressed sometimes”. But please before you roll your eyes at me shooting down someone’s effort to provide comfort, let me just explain.
To be honest, I can understand this one somewhat. It is a shortfall of the English language that as rich as it is we do not have the words to distinguish between depressed e.g. worse than feeling sad, and depressed as in the clinical syndrome. So often times I really feel that people think the two are the same thing. When they say we all get depressed sometimes, they think that they understand how you feel because indeed they have felt sad, but depression is more than that.
The list of symptoms of depression are extensive, and involve psychological, social and physical symptoms. Generally you need to have these symptoms for 2 weeks for a diagnosis of clinical depression to be made.
For me when I feel depressed I go from this overachieving, Type A personality to not seeing the point in anything. And I don’t mean this in an existential crisis sense. More so in a , “well I don’t even see the point in getting out of bed or getting up to get something to eat or even getting up to use the toilet.” And not only do I not see the point, I’m also too tired to. I don’t have the energy too. Simple tasks like getting up to make toast feel like the equivalent of running a marathon, too much hassle.
On top of that I feel empty, so empty that it hurts. The things that once brought me pleasure don’t, and suddenly I lose all interest in anything. No meeting up with friends, no talking to anyone, no watching TV, listening to music or surfing the internet. When I try to do small things like go to uni, or meet with friends, I feel as if I am carrying a heavy load which I am straining not to drop. However at times I fail. There have been points where I burst into tears mid conversation then made up a reason for being tearful.
- That you need a reason for being depressed
This isn’t true. Sometimes there is no cause, everything in your life seems fine. Just like any illness, there are risk factors that make you more likely to be a sufferer of the condition, but then there are those who do not have any but still succumb to the illness.
Please don’t feel like because there has been no known precursor for your depression that you are unworthy of the diagnosis or seeking help, remember any part of our body can fail us
- That depressed individuals cannot function in society
Last one for now, but yes we can. It is a struggle, but it is possible.
It’s sad how many people are scared to tell their close ones about their condition for fear of what they’ll think. The only way I can see this changing is by people with depression being vocal about it, not because we are proud but to show that it is nothing to be ashamed of. Depression is impartial, it comes for people in all walks of life but at the same time, with time and proper management, depressed individuals can still be mothers, fathers, workers you name it.
Like I previously mentioned, during my second year of university I woke up one day feeling depressed, and now almost 7 months later, I still feel the same. But through implementing the different management options I managed to pass the second year. You might need to change the way you do things, but you can still do them.
What do you reckon? Are there any that I have missed? 10 is such a well-rounded number but there are obviously more. I’d love to know your thoughts. Agree or disagree, let’s talk about it