Depression misconceptions are widespread
Breaking the stigma around misconceptions
When you are living with depression and/or anxiety, everyday tasks can be a struggle. There were many weeks I did not shower or do laundry. And days I could not get out of bed. It can be quite a task just to perform the basic functions and sometimes we have a huge internal dialogue as we are doing them.
“Every day begins with an act of courage and hope: getting our of bed.”
- Mason Cooley
We have a little critical companion that is constantly telling us that we “should be doing better” or we might be “failing” at something badly. Our inner voice can be a harsh critic and an unhelpful over-worrier. On top of this, we may also be dealing with the comments others make about us.
Sometimes we are lucky to find understanding or support about our mental health condition.
But other times, we end up hearing detrimental comments that work to further fuel our own inner fears about our condition. Most of these comments are born out of misconceptions about depression and can, therefore, be quite damaging in perpetuating the stigmas surrounding mental illness.
Here are some of the things you could hear people say about someone who is depressed.
“She is super-high functioning, so I don’t think she is depressed”
All people suffering from depression are home-bound and unable to perform tasks in their daily lives.
Many individuals with depression rattle on at high speeds like a runaway locomotive. And on the outside it can seem like they are doing fine. The reality is that some people do not have the option of stepping away from certain responsibilities. Instead, they end up with coping mechanisms that let them function externally, while carrying the damage inside.
Often, for these individuals, the breakdown can come if they are forced to take a break and actually deal with their feelings. High-functioning individuals with depression may sometimes continue to uphold the facade of being okay because they feel they don’t have a safe place to be themselves or deal with their problems.
They may even find small windows of “allowed non-composure” where they have crying or screaming outbursts in the shower or car. And then appear perfectly put together again at work 20 minutes later. Being able to perform your responsibilities may only signal a different stage or expression of depression, but the underlying illness can definitely still be present.
“I don’t believe that you’re actually depressed”
“Just snap out of it”
“You’re not even trying to be happy”
“You’re not grateful for what you actually have”
Depression is an emotion that can be turned on and off at will
Sometimes, people can be quite supportive of a condition if you ask them to help out because you’re not able to fulfill certain duties. Yet if that condition persists a bit longer than they initially expected, those feelings of sympathy and understanding can sometimes turn to resentment and blame.
This is not just true for mental illness, but many illnesses or conditions where a person is unable to care for themselves, like cancer or even a broken leg. The difference between a broken leg and depression is that you cannot “see” depression. And because there are so many misconceptions about it, people tend to treat it like something you can just “stop” when you’re done being “dramatic”. The problem here is that people have confused “depression” - the mental illness, with “I’m sad today” - the emotion.
Depression is a mental illness, not just an emotion.
It’s not something we “choose” to do or feel. We cannot just put on a fun song and “change our minds” about it. And this difference in approach affects how a person with this condition is treated.
Western medicine has often approached the mind as a “less concrete, less important” entity as the physical body. That perpetuates the concept that conditions of the mind are somehow “less real” or “less important” than conditions of the physical body. This is the framework that must be challenged in order to give mental illness the respect and understanding it deserves.
“You’re not depressed, you’re lazy”
Depression only affects your mind
The more research is done, the more links are found between depression and a huge variety of physical symptoms. Depression can cause symptoms as debilitating as full-body nerve pain, chronic migraines and persistent diarrhea and continuous fatigue. It is understandable that any individual experiencing these symptoms could be fully disabled by this condition.
But because mental illness is often still misunderstood, people who struggle with their mental health are often blamed for how they feel. This stems out of some mistrust that their feelings are only arbitrary and not part of a medically recognized illness. Depression can be a full-body illness, and it can change, evolve, get better, and get worse at different times for different people.
While depression is more individual and complex than a broken limb, a person suffering from it is no more responsible for their disability than someone who has a broken foot. Their disability should be treated according to this sentiment. You wouldn’t blame someone with a broken foot for not being able to care for their child in the same way. And neither should you expect that from someone with a mental illness.
The toll of these misconceptions
There are many misconceptions about depression, and their sentiment fuels the stigma that can still surround mental illness. Unfortunately, this stigma continues to put up additional hurdles for people who suffer from mental illness and keeps them from getting help, and getting better. It does this by...
... adding shame
Because some people still blame the individual with the illness for how they feel. They cause that person a lot of shame when they are not able to change the way they feel on demand. This shame is further internalized and only causes more damage and pain.
... adding guilt
Again, because a person with depression is often blamed for not being able to function or perform their responsibilities, there is a huge burden of guilt that can also build up around not being able to participate or meet expectations.
...keeping the conversation about just “changing our minds” instead of healing a mental illness
When the focus is constantly kept on just “fixing” what is wrong with the person, rather than how their illness can be healed, we only continue blame and never get to the constructive conversations that get to the root of mental illness.
...making us feel we can’t be honest about our condition, at home, at work or at school
Often, the stigma associated with admitting you’re struggling with mental illness is a burden that is too overwhelming or consequential to face. People may worry about how they will be perceived at work or by friends, and are afraid of being seen as “weak” or “crazy”. People may choose instead to put up a facade and manage as best they can without someone “discovering” their true state. This can be where the illusion of a highly-functioning depressed person is born from, and it can lead to even more significant breakdown if that person doesn’t find help.
Mental illness misconceptions create additional burdens and hurdles for people suffering from mental illness. And unfortunately they all culminate to one big result. They cause people with depression to be more likely to blame themselves (which contributes to the likelihood of suicide), and less likely to be honest about how they feel so they can reach out for support and professional help. Sadly, this is still a large reason why some people with mental illness are not finding the treatment they need or getting better.
What can help break misconceptions
There are still significant institutional and structural changes that need to take place in society to build a supportive system for mental health. Yet one place to start to change the misconceptions that hurt our progress is definitely education. Creating awareness is the first step to creating lasting change.
So if you’re suffering from mental illness, break the cycle of shame and speak out. Remember, you wouldn’t be apologetic if you broke your arm, so don’t feel guilty about how your depression makes you feel. The more we talk openly about mental illness, the more it helps others understand what it is. The more we are honest, the more we can dispel the fears.
And if you know someone that you think might be struggling with depression, don’t be afraid to try and reach out.
It might even be easier than you think to support someone. Even something as easy as “how’s it going today - really?” might be the opening someone is looking for to find support.
Take a cue from their body language to see if they are ready to share. Remember, you don’t need to understand someone’s depression in order to help them. You can just listen and be patient. And any time you’re worried about someone’s behavior, and you think they might need help beyond what you are able to give, find a crisis line near you for more advice and resources.
During my depression, I pretty much saw and experienced it all. Some people seemed to care about what was going on. But often they just did not understand or know how to help. Many others just shook it off and walked away from our friendship because dealing with a depressed person was too much. Especially when I struggled with depression over many years, people just seemed to lose interest. The misconceptions were crazy and widespread.
It has been my goal to open the conversation about mental health and keep it going. It’s not an easy thing. But as you can see, those are necessary conversations we need to have. For one, we need to be able to get support to people who need it when they need it. And second, we need to break through a lot of the misconceptions about mental health.
Everyone needs to decide for themselves if they want to speak up or not. But if you are struggling with a mental health condition I would encourage you to share. If we all keep silent, nothing will ever change. The system will stay the same and many people will simply fall through the cracks without getting the help they need.
I am a big believer in the fact that creating awareness is the first step to creating change. And yes, it’s not always easy. I am sure people judge me in all kinds of ways for creating this blog and the Jōrni. Maybe they do so out of ignorance or because of misinformation. But it is up to me to tell my story how it really is.
Your voice for change
You have the same power. If you are able to share, it may become part of your own healing journey. And you might change the lives of other people who connect with you. The mental health system in most countries is a long way from being perfect.
And often, community support online or in person is the biggest help we can find.
My own breakthrough with depression was born out of conversations with others who suffered from depression and anxiety. It was through this community that I started exploring many options and methods to try and deal with my depression. It can be a daunting journey if you feel like you are all alone in it. When you realize thousands of others are journeying with you, you may feel more supported and less alone.
Misconceptions exist everywhere and it’s usually due to a lack of understanding and education. It is up to us, the people who are experiencing depression, to set the record straight. We have the power to support each other and the power to educate others. So, let’s use this power wisely to create lasting change for better mental health support.
Your voice deserves to be heard!