They also assume that individuals with depression can simply snap out of it. (They can’t. Mild depression may abate with exercise, meditation and other self-help strategies. But most people’s clinical depression usually requires treatment.)
Such misconceptions can lead us to misinterpret what people need. It can lead us to make insensitive comments — “are you sure you want to get better?” — and to be dismissive of a disease that is actually devastating and really hard.
We asked people who have or had depression to share what they wish others knew and understood about the illness.
“I wish people didn’t think the solution was as easy as eliminating gluten and dairy, developing a meditation practice, doing yoga, taking fish oil supplements, and going to therapy,” said Therese Borchard, author of the book Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes.
She recently penned a powerful and popular piece on what she wishes people knew about depression on her blog “Sanity Break.”
“Depression isn’t my fault,” said Lisa Keith, PsyD, an assistant professor of special education at Fresno Pacific University, and author of the Psych Central blog “Bipolar Lifehacks.” She wants people to understand that depression isn’t a sign of weakness or a personality flaw.
“Although I pray regularly, I haven’t been healed per se, only given the tools to manage it and make it through each day. And I’m learning that that is OK, too.”
Depression is both emotionally and physically painful, she said. “Depression is a heavy chest pain, a headache, stomachache, crying, body aches, extreme fatigue and more. Sometimes, I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly; I just know that it doesn’t feel ‘right.’”
Douglas Cootey, who writes the award-winning blog “A Splintered Mind,” wishes people understood that depression goes beyond having a bad mood.
“I wish they understood that depression is like feeling — for no reason at all — as if you just lost a loved one. Depression can last for hours or even days, and is exhausting to our bodies and spirit. If feeling down due to disappointing events is normal, then our ‘down’ goes miles deeper into the Earth’s crust than normal. Sometimes it takes a world of positive attitudes and smiles to bring us back up from those depths, and sometimes it feels like there aren’t enough happy thoughts in the world to fill in that hole.”
Ruth White, Ph.D, MPH, MSW, author of the book Preventing Bipolar Relapse, wishes people understood what triggers depression. “I wish people understood that depression can have an external trigger with regards to a change in circumstance but it can also come because of an ‘unseen’ biochemical change so it doesn’t always ‘make sense.’”
White also wishes people knew that depression is both physically and mentally debilitating. Depression siphons your energy. Because you have very little energy, you tend to stay in the same spot or position for as long as possible, she said.
“This means often skipping meals because you have no energy to go to the kitchen and performing no physical activities at all because even watching television or texting can be exhausting.”
“Psychologically, the overwhelming feelings of sadness can overshadow everything and make it hard to engage with others. There is also the inability to concentrate or to think clearly so engaging in work activities or intellectual conversation can be exhausting or impossible. Creativity goes out the window, and there is a tendency to perseverate on negative thoughts.”
Writer Alexa Winchell wishes people understood that depression is a multisystemic condition.
I consider depression much more than a “mental illness” — in my experience, it has affected metabolic, endocrine, and hormonal function — everything from essential vitality to autonomic processes like appetite, sleep/wake cycles, depth of breathing, and digestive function. (I also live with complex PTSD and the effects of a brain injury sustained last year.)
Our primary focus on behavior — the brain’s expressive or outwardly evident functions such as cognition, perception and emotion — can negate what I call the “impressive” or regulatory functions (as listed above); we focus only on the tip of the iceberg. (Five years ago, when a kind and astute psychiatrist told me that “depression is a neurological disease,” I melted with relief.)
We need to attend to the basics: movement and rest, breathing, sleeping, nourishment, bonded relation, pacing and use of vital energy … I think that a sole focus on cognitive and pharmaceutical interventions address only the more outward and obvious aspects of depression, but not its most damaging effects deep within.
“I want readers to know that while depression is a serious illness, it is treatable… and that there’s no shame living with a mental illness,” said Deborah Serani, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of the books Living with Depression and Depression and Your Child.
She noted that depression is the leading cause of disability among Americans. “And when you factor in how untreated depression can lead to suicidal behaviors, it becomes a truly lethal illness.”
“Research reports that only 1 out of 4 people with depression seek treatment. The reason is that stigma — misinformation about mental illness that shames or discriminates — keeps many from getting professional help,” she said.
However, people who participate in psychotherapy and take medication report significant improvement. Up to 70 percent of people report remission of their symptoms, Serani said.
Depression is a difficult illness. One of the most compassionate things you can do for someone with depression is to realize this. Educate yourself. Depression – like all mental illness – touches each of us.