Sunday, 14 January 2018
I was recently reminded how depression is still largely misunderstood. I was speaking with someone about mental illness and this person began to tell me about a friend who has depression. She said that she told this friend, "Don't be so sad. You have lots of great things in your life to be happy about." I could tell that she cares about her friend and truly felt that she was helping her to place things into perspective. Frankly, this is a horrible thing to say to someone in the grips of depression.
Telling a person with a mental illness to not be 'sad' because they have so many great things to be happy about is exactly the same as telling a person who has cancer to not feel the physical pain because they have "so many great things to be happy about." Exactly the same thing.
It made my heart hurt knowing that this woman's friend is not being supported in a truly understanding, empathetic way. And I get it - I really do. People just don't understand mental illness. Still. I have been tossing this conversation around in my mind in the few weeks since it happened and I have come to this conclusion: we want to reduce depression down to something simple and palatable - something that we can understand. That is this one small word: sad.
You can be sad and not have depression. But sadness alone is not mental illness. Depression is a much more complex thing. In fact, a person who has depression can have moments of happiness and joy - they are just rare. Depression is overwhelming and all encompassing. The American Psychiatric Association lists the symptoms of depression as:
* Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
* Changes in appetite - weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
* Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
* Loss of energy or increased fatigue
* Increase in purposeless physical activity (hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observed by others)
* Feeling worthless or guilty
* Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
* Thoughts of suicide or death
* Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
These symptoms can range from mild to severe and must last at least two weeks for a diagnosis of depression. Sadness, you will note, is just one symptom of many.
I have experienced the majority of this list over the course of three major depressive episodes. I also had moments of laughter and happiness - incredibly fleeting but those moments were there. Depression is complicated. If it were simple I am certain that we would have a cure for it by now. Unfortunately, we don't.
In the meantime, let's all learn more about what has become a health crisis. Depression is the number one cause of disability worldwide. It's not heart disease or breast cancer. It's depression. Let's seek to understand so that we can support each other and ourselves to be mentally healthy and well. Reducing a serious illness to one small component of it keeps people silent when what we really, desperately need is more open discussion.
It's OK to feel sad. It's OK to have depression (no, you are NOT weak). It's not OK to minimize the very real physical and emotional pain that people experience.
P.S. To learn more watch one of these TED Talks about mental illness or choose a book from this list.
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