Everything You Thought You Knew About Depression Is Wrong

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“It’s all in your head.” 

“You’re just sad.”

“Cheer up!”

“You have so much to be grateful for.”

People suffering from depression hear such comments regularly. Whether from well-intentioned family and friends or from acquaintances, the general consensus is that depression will disappear if the person in question just tries a little harder to appreciate their life, be more optimistic, and perhaps spend more time doing the things they love.

But they’re wrong.

Depression is not just a feeling of sadness; it’s not something that people can snap out of with the right kind of motivation. It is a common and yet serious medical illness that negatively affects how a person feels, acts, and thinks. By refusing to recognize depression for what it really is – a mentally debilitating illness – we are doing a great disservice to its more than 300 million sufferers.

On Psycom.net, a prominent digital resource for a wide variety of mental health conditions, people suffering from depression anonymously posted online what this condition feels like to them. Here is how a few of them describe it.

“People think depression is sadness. People think depression is crying. People think depression is dressing in black. But people are wrong. Depression is the constant feeling of being numb. Being numb to emotions, being numb to life. You wake up in the morning just to go to bed again.”

“That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious – and it compounds daily – making it impossible to ever see the end. That fog is like a cage without a key.”

 “When you’re depressed, you can’t control your thoughts; your thoughts control you. I wish people understood that.”

“Depression is feeling like you’ve lost something but having no clue when or where you last had it. Then one day you realize what you lost is yourself.”

While there are different types of depression (mild, major, manic, chronic, clinical, etc.), that ineffable feeling of helplessness and debilitation is the same across the board, albeit with different levels of intensity. The problem is that, because there is so much fear and misconception around this disease, which is currently the leading cause of disability worldwide and is slated to become the second largest health problem by 2020, it is often left untreated, its sufferers too ashamed to seek help and its bystanders feeling helpless as they watch their loved ones go through it.

“According to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US in 2018, about 40 to 50 percent of all individuals suffering from depression remain untreated each year,” says Sneha John, Consulting Psychologist at LifeWorks Holistic Counseling Centre in Dubai. She believes that fear and stigma are the primary culprits. “Fear is a huge overarching factor in people’s reluctance to seek professional help to treat depression. The fear of being termed as “mentally ill”, the fear of even just discussing in-depth information about the condition, is also a barrier. Some believe that they should deal with depressive symptoms on their own and that seeking help may make them inferior.” According to John, research shows that stigma arises from a lack of awareness, a lack of psycho-education about the condition, and a lack of perception about the nature of the mental illness. “Stigma around depression may have serious implications on a person’s life. It can arise from personal, social, and family sources or it could be self-inflicted,” she explains.

The truth is that there is no permanent cure for depression. But with knowledge and the right treatment plan, those suffering can live life with a somedays-half-full-somedays-half-empty mentality. It’s for those struggling quietly yet bravely that we desperately need to learn and talk openly about this disease. We’ll go first.

Below are a few myths about depression that we’ve debunked, with the help of professionals.

Myth #1: You can think yourself out of depression.

The roots of depression are intricate and multifaceted, making it hard for depressed people to figure out who and what to confront. “Depression results from a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors, and so we cannot ‘think’ ourselves out of it,” says Dr. Girish Banwari, Medical Director at LifeWorks. Yes, one of the most well-known ways to treat depression is using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which aims to lessen the illness by changing one’s unwanted and negative thoughts and behavioral patterns to more positive ones, but depression is also a brain disorder, not just a state of mind.

Clinical depression, for example, is caused by a defect in the brain that stops it from producing enough of neurotransmitters, like norepinephrine and serotonin, which are responsible for mood control. “And still, the theory that single neurotransmitter system disturbances cause depression is way too simplistic. In fact, it is now known that the cause of depression involves more intricate neuroregulatory mechanisms, neurobehavioral systems, and neural circuits,” Dr. Banwari says. Her theory is popular amongst medical professionals. Dr. Harry Horgan, Psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center (GNC) in Dubai, agrees; “The neurobiology of depression is still not well understood. Hence, it can be difficult to identify and challenge or change a negative thinking process.” Bottom line: You can’t think yourself out of depression.

Myth #2: Depression is caused by something.

While certain traumatic experiences in life can trigger depression, there is no real reason or justification for it. It just is. “It can happen ‘out of the blue’, as they say, because some people are biologically vulnerable to depression. It could be genetic, or it could be due to a physical condition like hypothyroidism. An unhappy event, a failing relationship, or continued financial problems only serve to unmask that existing vulnerability,” Dr. Banwari explains. In other words, nothing you personally did made you depressed. It was bound to happen one way or another because the illness is in you.

Myth #3: Depression is a female problem.

This common belief is not only inaccurate, but it’s also a dangerous way of thinking because it dissuades males with depression from coming forward and seeking help. “Of the people that report experiencing depression, approximately 60 percent are women and 40 percent are men. So, while there may be a difference between the sexes, this discrepancy is partly due to the difference in help-seeking behavior, as men are often less likely to seek support for a range of health conditions,” says Dr. Horgan. Depression doesn’t come with a menstrual cycle.

Myth #4: Being sad is the same as being depressed.

Because pervasive sadness is one of the main symptoms of depression, people often can’t tell the difference between the two. “While persistent sadness is often part of the experience of depression, it’s not only the case. Depression is not an increase of sadness, but rather a flat-lining of all emotions,” Dr. Horgan says.

Sadness is a result of an event or experience – something that occurred that triggered this feeling. It is a normal human emotion. Depression, on the other hand, is not triggered by any specific event. Unlike sad people, who are sad about something, depressed people are sad about everything. “Everyone goes through periods of sadness. But those are usually in response to life events – ‘blues’ brought on by setbacks, like losing a job. Such sadness is transient, and one goes back to normal once the situation is under control, or when one learns to cope with it. Clinical depression, however, is different. It’s a prolonged state of melancholy. One feels a persistent, continued, pervasive sense of sadness, most of the days, most of the time, and is unable to detach from it,” says Dr. Banwari.

Myth #5: Being grateful makes you less depressed.

While studies have proven that practicing gratitude greatly impacts our mental, physical, and psychological wellbeing, telling a depressed individual to be more grateful is, in fact, unhelpful. Firstly, it assumes that people with depression are in control of their feelings – they are not. Secondly, it increases their feelings of guilt, which ultimately discourages them from seeking help. Thirdly, it perpetuates the stigma of depression and misconstrues the real causes behind it. Simply put, telling a depressed person that they should be more grateful shows a serious lack of understanding about this mental health illness and is dismissive of the struggles someone with depression goes through on a daily basis.

We must always remember: Depression is not a choice. Let’s stop talking in shameful whispers in darkened corners and bring the conversation out into the open. Bathed in the light of understanding and acceptance, we can start to heal and recover.

If you think that you, or someone you know, may be depressed, here are the signs to watch out for.

  • Having little interest in and getting little pleasure from doing things
  • Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much
  • Feeling tired or having little energy
  • Having poor appetite or overeating
  • Feeling excessive and inappropriate guilt
  • Feeling bad about yourself or that you are a failure
  • Having trouble concentrating on things
  • Having thoughts that you would be better off dead or overt suicidal thoughts

If someone you know is suffering from depression, here‘s what to do.