First of all, I’d like to make a disclaimer: everything I talk about in this article is my personal opinion, based on my personal experiences. I may be criticized for writing what I believe, but in my personal opinion, the certain messages I list below are what have affected me negatively during my own experience of depression.
Secondly, I’d like to acknowledge the importance of mental health awareness. I myself had my fair share of depression, from an age so young that sometimes I wonder if I’d ever truly not been depressed. I am an advocate for mental health awareness. I believe people deserve to be happy. I just don’t like how we sometimes approach this issue nowadays.
In my humble opinion, talking about mental health can sometimes be no better than not talking about it at all – if it is handled in the way that it often can be in this modern narrative. I am no therapist, but from my own life experiences, I found three types of messages that are fairly inaccurate portrayals of – or responses to – mental health-related topics. The thing is, they all sound legitimate, and are shared widely on social media, believed to be “all it needs” to make things better.
Type 1: Messages that emphasize “I can’t” instead of “I try, and fail, and try”.
Ths is the type I hate the most. If I’m in a good mood, I get annoyed. If I’m in a bad mood, or a mental state that is close to a recurrence of a depressive episode, this sort of thing throws me right into a sea of despair. Here’s why: they talk about the problem, and fail to mention the fact that there is a solution. In fact, there are often multiple solutions.
A very good example of this would be the rhetorics of how depression is different than sadness. They usually start with “depression is”, and follow it with a list of things a depressed person may feel or do, like “not getting out of bed because I just don’t have the energy to do it”, “not being able to sleep”, “constantly believing you aren’t worthy of any love or attention”, etc. I may not have experienced all of these “checkmark” feelings in my life, but between me and a number of friends, we’ve got the list covered. Trust me when I say these posts have merits in describing such a horrible condition.
My problem is, depression is not Alzheimer’s. It’s not a chronic disease that only progresses till the day I die, and people should stop talking about it like that. It’s more like breast cancer or leukaemia, where many people improve after the right (combination of) treatment(s) is/are delivered. Some may never see their situation get better, but many do, even if it takes multiple tries to seek help. Some with depression even get better without professional help – their journeys are simply more convoluted than those who had the privilege to receive proper care. Hope is there, and people deserve to know things can, and do better.
Depression is much more than what the disease prevents us from doing, or the rotten, even hollow, feeling that haunts us every single day. It’s a battle of survival; it’s the incubation of resilience – don’t let anyone kill it for you.
Type 2: “It’s okay to not be okay” – less alarming but know the ultimate goal is recovery. Use “I’m glad you’re still fighting” instead.
This is somewhat less misleading than the above messages. It speaks in a tone that is accepting and supportive, which helps many people to internalize assurance – a crucial step on the road to recovery. It’s also the catalyst that allows many people to seek outside help. I personally use this quote when it feels like my world is falling apart, and I tell other people that when they come to me with what looked like a rock-bottom situation, too.
However, I’ve seen people, upon hearing this line, give up things that could have helped them out of their episode a little earlier. I myself had fallen into this trap before, believing acceptance and patience were all it took to pull myself out of the bog. It doesn’t work this way. One of the most horrible things about depression is that it convinces you to not do anything, and when you finally listen, it comes with your-brain-now-converted-to-gang-members to beat the sh*t out of your emotional well-being. To top it all off, you can’t expect it to simply “get better”. You do things, occupy your mind with other, more mundane things, and process your emotions in the meantime. For depression, idle hands mean idle minds, and idle minds are the recipe for disaster.
Therefore, I often add “I’m glad you’re still fighting/trying, and would like to see you continue doing so” after this quote.
Type 3: Posts that “label” a listener and urges people to copy and paste to “pass the message on”.
They often go like this: “Mental health is important… I want you to know that I care and that if you are in need to talk about anything at all, I’m ready to listen… Copy & paste this message and post it on your wall if you think mental health is important.”
For me, it’s always a face-palm moment when I see those posts. The reason is quite simple: it doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to be the Samaritan by copy & pasting something you think sounds nice. Being a listener doesn’t make you the one who solves people’s problems. One, you can’t; and two, no one can solve their problems apart from the person themselves. Don’t get me started on how many people are peer pressured into posting these sort of things.
If you do think something like this would do the world good, ask yourself: “Am I ready to listen”? By listening, I don’t mean reading another person’s problem and providing advice. I mean setting aside hours, watching a person emotionally break down in front of your eyes, listening to every single word they use and hearing what they are truly saying, refraining from giving advice until they ask for it (or you have something non-judgemental and quick that works for everyone and you think the person will accept), and responding supportively at an emotional level. I’ve done this, countless times. So many times that I’m doubting counselling psychology as a potential career path for me. It’s draining. It’s horrible. It’s drowning on Mars. Very few people I know possess the patience to even follow the above guidelines; less had the actual listening skills to truly make others feel better.
What happens if you fail to follow the above guideline? More often than not you’d make the person feel worse by coming across condescending or dismissive without even realizing it; or you’d be deemed unhelpful, even untrustworthy. This is not opening up the conversation. It is closing it off around yourself and keeping that sweet bubble unburst.
Of course, the fact that people are talking about these things is a good sign. We’re just doing it in a way that makes ourselves, rather than the people in need, feel better. Next time when you come across these types of messages, remember to pause, think critically about them, and use/respond accordingly.
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