Mental illness has long been a taboo subject and those with a mental-health diagnosis have long been stigmatized for their struggles. In recent years, though, we’ve begun to shift our ideas about the topic in a positive direction. As a society, we’re talking more about common mental-health concerns such as anxiety and depression, and we’re acknowledging just how prevalent they really are. We’re also talking about these topics with our friends and loved ones. We’re asking for recommendations for therapists, we’re comparing medications (for better or for worse, a substantial number of Americans are on antidepressants) and we’re opening up about our pain.
Overall, this is a very good thing. Mental-health struggles can lead to pervasive feelings of isolation and alienation; connecting with others is one antidote to that. The one flaw is that even a well-meaning and supportive friend or family member may not always say the right thing, usually because of misinformation or a general lack of knowledge about mental illness. Unfortunately, it does make sense — psychology isn’t a mandated part of high-school curricula and many college grads even get through all their schooling without ever having taken a psychology course.
While an article can’t come close to offering the value of a full course on the subject, here are some notes on common misperceptions about depression — the most-diagnosed mental illness worldwide:
1. The myth: “Depression is just being sad.”
Sadness is certainly a part of depression, but sadness is a temporary emotion and is generally a feeling that occurs in reaction to something. Sadness comes and goes. Depression, on the other hand, is long-lasting and is considered chronic. To go further, depression is not simply marked by sadness. Depression may also include feeling numb or empty, agitated and irritable. It may also be marked by difficulty concentrating, a lack of motivation and feelings of extreme tiredness all the time. Suggesting to someone suffering from depression that he/she is simply sad is incredibly invalidating to that person’s experience.
2. The myth: “Changing your diet can cure depression.”
For those health-conscious folks, it’s a common belief that lifestyle decisions such as diet and exercise can cure depression. There is research that suggests that a healthy diet is correlated with reduced risk of depression; however, a healthy diet is correlated with all kinds of positive benefits. To suggest that diet can cure or prevent depression is a severe overstatement and is something to avoid saying to someone suffering from the condition. Depression is so unpleasant an experience that if dietary habits could fix it, just about every depressed person on the planet would have adapted to a diet that would solve the problem.
3. The myth: “Depression is a sign of weakness.”
In reality, depression is in no way linked to personal strength or lack thereof. Depression is rooted in a variety of factors including biological or genetic predispositions. We don’t get to opt in or out of depression, and the notion that someone with this diagnosis is simply weak can be a devastating one. Shame is a major component of depression and other mental-health diagnoses due to negative beliefs such as this one. The more we are able to understand that depression is an illness just in the way diabetes or asthma or any other physical ailment is, the less inclined those suffering from depression will be to keep their illness a secret and a point of shame. It should also be noted that the strength it takes to get through every day while dealing with depression is substantial.
4. The myth: “You can ‘just pull
yourself out of it.’”
One of the most common and hurtful statements made to individuals suffering from depression is that they should just pull themselves out of it. For many people who have never experienced depression, it might seem logical to think that you could get past a bout by shifting the way you think and making the decision to “get past it.” The reality is that if it were possible to pull oneself out of the depths of depression, people would. While there are benefits to things like purposeful positive thinking, depression is far too complex to be eradicated by trying to talk yourself out of it.
5. The myth: “You need a reason to be depressed.”
Depression can be triggered by an external event such as the death of a loved one or a breakup, but a period of depression can also occur seemingly for no reason. Depression is not a thing that requires a reason or a justification. Someone who seems to have a wonderful life and who, on the surface, has no reason to be unhappy or discontented may be quietly suffering from depression despite everything around them being “fine” or even “good.” Saying to your depressed friend or loved one something like, “Come on, you have no reason to be depressed. You’ve got a great life” may seem reasonable but, for someone struggling with depression, this can induce feelings of immense shame.
We’re doing a better job than we ever have of addressing mental illness in this country, but there is still a great deal of room for improvement. Like so many other things, a grassroots effort to change the conversation around mental illness can and will make all the difference on a societal level. Let’s strive to keep the dialogue open, to support our loved ones struggling with depression and other mental illnesses, and to proactively work toward growing in understanding of what it really means to be depressed.
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist committed to working with LGBT individuals and couples. She owns Emerge Wellness, an LGBT health and wellness center in Center City (www.emergewellnessphilly.com).