There has been an increase in the numbers of celebrities talking about depression and anxiety in response to media interest in mental health and the royal-backed campaign Heads Together. I don’t doubt that they are genuinely experiencing these issues, and I must be clear that I wouldn’t want to cast doubt on their experiences. There is so much stigma around speaking out that it would be remiss of me to downplay, dismiss or condescend what must be a difficult process of publicly opening up about genuine inner struggles they have been battling with for years.
The message underneath all of this is that depression is real, and talking helps. But are the multitude of stories always helpful to your everyday person living with depression? Without responsible media coverage, the word 'depression' can become diluted and people might stop listening. That’s not to say the stories themselves aren’t real or the people doing the interviews aren’t being genuine – I believe they are – just that the media plays a responsible role in how they affect any readership, and if we’re getting anywhere close to thinking 'oh, another one of those stories', then this is an alarm bell. When that starts happening, we might lose sight of the reality of living with depression and other mental health difficulties. People have begun to use the word depression, likewise anxiety, in common parlance without recognising what it is they’re actually saying. There is a definite distinction between feeling low and having depression – the same thing can be applied to feeling anxious and suffering from an anxiety disorder.
The word depression is problematic because it is a label and the problem with labels is we attach interpretation to them. We can then get caught in the trap of deciding who is and who isn’t depressed, what depression looks like, what it is and how it develops. Add to that the stigma around it, and those suffering from it might feel reluctant to name it for fear of what that would mean, and those who might not have it at a ‘clinical’ level might worry that they do and become distressed at the meta meaning of being a ‘depressed person’. Once someone has a label assigned to them it can start to feel like part of their identity, which can add to the issue and perpetuate it. On the other hand, for some people, finally having a name for what’s wrong can be a real relief and empower them to seek help. It really depends on the individual person and depression affects different people in different ways – it isn’t fixed, and that’s what so important to remember.
Feeling down, going through a rough patch, and depression are different things. Feeling down is a transient feeling but it is usually identifiable by the fact we can name it and usually attribute it to something.
At its extreme end, depression is an absence of feeling – over time, this develops into a loss of hope and feelings of helplessness or despair. Those suffering from severe depression – whether an acute bout, or chronically – are not simply feeling sad or unhappy, they are feeling empty, void and numb. They might be alive, but they are not ‘living’. This is a terrifying place to be and the first response to someone else’s depression should always be compassion. Very often, those who suffer with depression are terrified of burdening others and the guilt of doing so feeds back into the feelings of self-inadequacy.
The reasons and causes are varied – sometimes it’s neurological, environmental, sometimes circumstantial and sometimes the reason isn’t known. But the point is that they are suffering. The way they then cope with that also differs: some people will become withdrawn; others will distract themselves with coping mechanisms like drinking, going out, or self-harming.
Many people use the phrase “What is there to be depressed about?” I believe this is the most misinformed phrase around depression. Depression is not relative to one’s fortune in life or to somebody else’s definition of what constitutes a good life. Depression is not something you ‘earn’ based on your level of plight as if cashing in a cheque at a bank – it doesn’t work that way. Depression doesn’t discriminate. It can afflict anybody at any time. Depression doesn’t have a ‘look’ to it either. I think sometimes we picture people who are depressed looking sad or lonely with hands clutched into their heads, or crying. This just isn’t always true. There are many successful people in the world looking well-dressed, smiles on their faces, going out and seemingly having a wonderful time – maybe on paper, they are the picture of “sorted” – but this says nothing of the inner reality of their worlds. We can never know the complex, hidden regrets, life experiences and traumas of a person’s past just by looking at their face and what they’re wearing. Sometimes we can recognise somebody’s depression if they suddenly become withdrawn, put on or lose a lot of weight etc., but sometimes it isn’t that easy. People can be masters at painting on a smile or pretending things are okay in order not to burden others, so it is important not to judge.
Though different from depression, I want to stress that feeling down and going through a rough patch are still valid experiences that we should listen to. Mental health issues don’t just appear out of a vacuum, they can be the result of a cumulative effect of experiences that begin with a bad patch, and the earlier a bad patch is caught the better in the long-term for someone’s mental health. So do pay attention when someone says they aren’t doing so well; but also watch out for the one who appears to be fine. Depression is a silent illness. Every now and then, check in on your happiest friends – ask them how they’re feeling; they might not be as robust as you think they are. And finally, counselling and therapy are not just there for people with diagnosable conditions but for anybody struggling to cope – there are helplines, organisations, agencies and private avenues at your disposal at any time to support you in any emotion you are going through. Use them. Know that you have options, know that whatever the feeling is that you’re feeling – be it a bad day or chronic clinical depression – you’re never alone in it.