This isn’t my usual tomfoolery. I hope you guys won’t mind if I put this out there. I’ve suffered from clinical depression since I was 13. I’ve had treatment, therapy, medication, and a wonderful support system of friends and family, and yet there have been periods of under-medication / wrong medication / no medication where I felt like my whole world was rotten to its core. It’s something I’ve struggled with all my life, and will continue to struggle with. Here are some common questions I’ve had to answer.
Q: Why does everyone make such a big deal about depression? When I get sad I don’t make a big deal out of it.
A: Depression isn’t “being sad.” Depression is an inability to stop being sad. See the difference?
Q: What do you have to be so depressed about?
A: This is an erroneous question because it’s predicated upon the assumption that depression comes from external sources. It doesn’t. Depression comes from within. It begins and ends inside a person’s own mind. When you’re sad in direct relation to events in your life, there are other words for that - grief, jealousy, bitterness, hurt feelings, etc. They aren’t the same as depression. (Traumatization is an exception which I will discuss later on.)
Q: If it’s all in your head, why don’t you just tell yourself to feel better? Why can’t you just think positive?
A: Depression is not rational. It cannot be reasoned with or explained away. The things you read on motivational posters and hear in seminars are not designed for people who suffer from depression. Depression is a medical condition in which a person’s brain is not receiving the correct amounts of the chemicals which cause one to feel happiness, contentment, and positivity. It’s no different, in that respect, than someone who is born with muscular dystrophy or a heart condition. Every limb, organ, and system in the body can malfunction and fail. Why not the brain?
Q: Why don’t you just go do things that cheer you up?
A: Fun things aren’t fun when you have depression. It’s like a sponge sitting on top of your brain that absorbs all the enjoyment from things before you have a chance at the trough. If you enjoy playing video games, playing video games will stop being fun. To someone suffering from severe depression, the most they can hope for is temporary distraction.
Q: You just want attention.
A: That’s not a question, but okay, let’s address it. People who falsely claim to suffer from maladies in order to get attention are afflicted with a disorder called Munchausen’s Syndrome. Sometimes they say they suffer from depression, sometimes they say they suffer from other things. These people make up a very small percentage of society. Most people who suffer from depression will only admit so to close friends or family, and some will never tell anyone. Some may not even get diagnosed, seeing it as weakness to do so. Depression is heavily stigmatized in our society, and to admit to suffering from it is to risk social alienation, mockery, and even unemployment. So if someone tells you that they suffer from depression, the odds that they’re a Munchausen’s sufferer are quite small, and you would do well not to dismiss that person. Instead, be as supportive and sympathetic as you can while understanding that what they are going through is as real as a broken leg. And since depression is a major cause of death in every demographic, understand that this person could be in real danger.
Q: Why do depressives so often become addicts?
A: They’re self-medicating. What the depressive’s brain lacks is chemicals. Drugs are chemicals. Alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, heroin, crystal meth, and myriad other drugs all temporarily modify the way the brain works. Unlike something along the lines of bipolar disorder, depression does not ever take a break. It may get more or less intense, but it is always there. Imagine you are chronically unable to feel hope or happiness, but you find something that offers a break - however brief - from that omnipresent feeling of crushing despair. Can you understand how you might be moved to embrace such a thing, regardless of the consequences?
Q: Why don’t depressives understand that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem?
A: Often, they do understand this on some level. Rationally, a person most likely knows that things change and if one is unhappy, there is always hope. But as I said before, depression does not answer to rationality. You may rationally understand that there is hope for you, and yet be chemically unable to feel that hope. Also, for most depressives, this has been going on for their entire lives. It may genuinely seem as if they have always felt terrible and therefore will always feel terrible no matter what they do. It may seem as if every respite from depression is only a brief glimpse of happiness, soon to be lost again. It is very difficult to argue with a lifetime’s worth of experience.
Q: Can depressives find comfort in religion or spirituality?
A: Sometimes. In many ways, however, depression is the opposite of religious faith. In general, a religious / spiritual person believes what they do not because of science or logic or things that they can prove, but because of what they feel to be true in their heart. They FEEL blessed. Depression works in the same way. One can understand rationally that new medications and therapy techniques are constantly being worked on, and they haven’t tried everything yet and should therefore not give up, and still feel like there is no hope. Instead of feeling blessed by your creator, you feel doomed. As an atheist, I myself am familiar with the inherent contradiction in having no belief in a higher power yet feeling crushed under the heel of a universe out to get me, sure that no matter what I do, it would always turn out for the worst. This wasn’t something I “knew” - in fact, I knew it to be logically unsound - it was something I felt, as naturally as I would feel hot or cold, and as surely as a believer feels the love of God.
Q: Doesn’t our society over-medicate, though? Are you sure you need medication to feel better?
A: Some people can overcome depression through therapy and extensive, intense mental reconfiguration. This doesn’t work for everybody, though, and while therapy is always a good idea, it’s frequently not enough by itself. Imagine if you were born without a left leg. Think about how it would make you feel if people said to you, “Are you sure you need that prosthetic limb? Maybe you just need to be more positive and work harder, and stop using that prosthetic leg as such a crutch.” People really are this dismissive of depression, refusing to acknowledge it as a real thing and instead choosing to believe that it is evidence of some kind of character flaw. Simply because they can’t physically see it! How woefully short-sighted.
Q: But someone I know lost a family member and was grieving, but the doctor said they were depressed and prescribed them medicine. Shouldn’t they have just tried to process it naturally?
A: This is a tricky area, so I can only say what I know about it from personal experience. Intense grief and sorrow can feel like depression. Victims of extreme misfortune or marginalized social standing (poverty, prejudice, isolation, etc.) can feel depressed. Sometimes, if the pain cuts deep enough, it can literally traumatize a person. When a person is traumatized, their brain actually begins to function differently. It no longer receives the signals and chemicals it once did. When a person is traumatized, they very well may need medication in order to normalize again. It’s different from case to case and everyone should try to stay in touch with themselves as much as possible regarding what, exactly, they need. Again, therapy / counseling is a big help here.
Q: What if I believe I don’t need therapy?
A: You’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “Do I really need therapy?” ask yourself “Am I certain that I will receive no positive benefit from therapy?” Therapy and counseling aren’t necessarily life preservers. They can simply be another useful tool you have to keep your life on the path you want.
Q: So what do we do about it?
A: Educate yourself and others, in that order. If someone comes to you for help, listen to them. If you suffer from depression, seek help from professionals. Be wary of holistic “medicine” as there is little to no science to support much of it. Go to therapy, counseling, or a support group. If your area has no support group, consider starting one - many churches and religious centers will be open to the idea. If you have little or no money, type “free mental health care” and the name of your city into a search engine like Google. If you feel you’re in danger of hurting yourself, the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Don’t dismiss it, call it. Depression has only been classified as a mood disorder since 1980. It’s still not entirely understood, but the best way to fight it is to know yourself and know what it is you want and need. You must be proactive. You must not give up. Progress is ongoing. Keep fighting. It is difficult. Do it anyway. This is not a fight you can afford to lose.
If you feel like this has told you something you didn’t already know, or if you feel like other people need to see it, please share it. If you’re considering hurting yourself, please talk to someone. Even if you think no one cares and it’ll never get better, do it. Even if you have no money, do it. You are worth fighting for.