During summer 2018, reports of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths crashed like waves of confusion and agony across the world; social media exploded and conversations about mental illness became front and center. In response, loving and well-intentioned friends and family members shared important posts about being a safe place and encouraging those in their lives who are oppressed by depression and mental illness to reach out. As the days have continued to drift by, however, fewer posts popped up on social media feeds, reporting on NPR returned to normal, and I thought, “We need to keep this conversation going.”
In February 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report from the Nation Center for Health Statistics that stated between 2013 and 2016, 8.1% of our population, age 20 and older, experienced depression in length of, at minimum, two weeks (Brody, Pratt & Hughes, 2018). More recently, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that one in five Americans suffers from mental illness, including depression, with depression now acknowledged as the leading cause of disability world wide and the greatest contributor to the “global burden of disease” (2018).
One in five.
This means that it is not only common, it is most likely impacting people near and dear to you. That is why better understanding is imperative to creating safe space for those who battle every day; how we think and talk about depression and mental illness has incredible power to positively impact the lives of those who live with it every day.
Here are five assumptions about mental health that impact the way we view those who suffer:
Someone who suffers from a mental illness or depression is “crazy”: About six years ago I modified my eating habits to eliminate sugar, dairy, and wheat products. I had to plan an extra 20 minutes into my grocery trips to account for the mind-numbing experience of picking an item up off the shelf, locating the “contains” section, and picking out anything that hinted of dairy, sugar, or wheat. I learned many valuable things through this 40 day experience but only one of them is applicable here: check your labels. “Crazy” is a label that culturally we ascribe certain behaviors, attitudes, and attributes toward. Often I’m asked: “Am I crazy?” from friends, clients, and family members when they talk about how they are feeling and how they see the world. Crazy is a heavy burden to carry.
There are two aspects of this myth: first, words hold incredible power to sculpt how we think and feel about something. Labeling those who suffer from mental illness as “crazy” impacts the way we feel about people who experience mental illness and depression, as well as how those who are suffering feel about themselves. The majority of people who experience mental illness continue to trudge through their daily lives with little erratic behavior. Secondly, when we talk about or think about someone as “crazy” due to their mental illness, we are making a statement about their identity: who they are. I think of depression as an oppressor in the life of those who suffer rather than a part of who they are. Addressing our own assumption about those who are oppressed by depression and mental illness will go great lengths in creating safe places for those who do suffer to reach out for support.
Depression sufferers can snap out of it by thinking positively: Depression impacts one’s ability to logically process their experiences. Think about it this way: when you wear sunglasses, it changes your experience of everything that you see; what was once bright and squinty is now tolerable with a subtle blue hue. Depression is like a pair of demon sunglasses: rather than shielding your eyes from harmful UV rays, they prevent you from seeing positive aspects of your life and self. Whether you feel sad, apathetic, or worried, depression colors everything that you experience. According to James Cartreine, PhD, “(Depression) can impair your attention and memory, as well as your information processing and decision-making skills. It can also lower your cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt your goals and strategies to changing situations) and executive functioning (the ability to take all the steps to get something done)” (2016). Thinking your way out of depression is a somewhat impossible task as the oppressor, Depression, manipulates how adaptable and logical your thinking brain can be.
People who are depressed cry all the time: The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual for Mental Disorders, version 5, or DSM-5, is the measure by which depression is considered and diagnosed. The DSM-5 outlines numerous different factors to depression, including but not limited to, persistent sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness, fatigue, significant weight gain or loss, and diminished pleasure in daily life (2013). Depression is more than sadness. Broadening my understanding of the symptoms of depression allows me to better see and understand it in myself and others.
Depression is a sign of weakness or fragility: When I think about those who battle depression, the last thing I think about is weakness. Depression is like a gremlin on your back, constantly telling you to give up, you can’t do it, you’ll never make it, you’re not good enough. Yet so many who have to suffer with the voice of Depression get up and keep putting one foot in front of the other every day. It takes strength and courage to fight off the gremlin of Depression. Self-disclosure: in my own battle with depression, I have had moments where I’ve been able to shut that voice out, moments where I struggled to keep it’s mouth shut, and other moments where I’m so tired from the wrestle that I can’t keep those words out anymore. No where in those three experiences do I see weakness. Exhaustion, sure. Weakness, no. When we take time to listen to the stories of those oppressed by Depression, we are able to hear their strength, their fight, and their courage while also understanding that there may come a time when exhaustion emerges and support is needed.
Depression is a normal response to life’s stressors: There is a big difference between feeling down, disappointed, or sad about the things we experience in life and being depressed. Depression works its way into a variety of different areas in someone’s life: sleep, weight, guilt, shame, etc. And it is not something we can work our way out of one our own.Depression has nothing to do with strength; it can be caused by a chemical imbalance, trauma, genetics, and environment, and more often than not some combination of the four. And it doesn’t care if you’re physically or mentally strong.
Interested in learning more about mental illness, depression, stigma, and combating these myths visit MakeItOK.org or CureStigma.org. NAMI also provides resources, classes, and groups across our nation to support those that experience mental illness and their friends and family.
Check out some of these resources and let’s keep the conversation going! I’d love to hear about resources in your own area as well as how this post was helpful to you. Feel free to leave a comment that supports our encouraging atmosphere. If you have any questions about what comments are not appropriate, please take a minute to read through the Terms and Conditions.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Fifth edition. Arlington, VA.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Major depression. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression.shtml
Dr. Cartreine is a clinical psychologist, interactive media producer, and researcher. He is an Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches CBT to psychiatry residents. Dr. Cartreine is affiliated with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Boston VA Medical Center, and is a co-founder of The EverMind Group, LLC.