Following the death of Robin Williams, I watched Facebook flood with articles and discussions of depression. It’s a tough subject at the best of times, even harder following the fresh sting of loss.
Emotions were high, so I prepared myself for an onslaught of insensitive posts about suicide being selfish, cowardly, etc. I was dismayed, though, to see phrases like “depression is a life-threatening illness” and “depression is out to kill you” dancing alongside the other comments.
I’ve watched the fight to raise awareness about depression for quite some time, and it seems that we’re finally reaching a place where people sort of understand that depression isn’t a character flaw…but I’m not sure that where we’re headed is any better.
Although it’s important to recognize that depression can be rooted in physical causes, vitamin deficiencies or hormonal imbalances, it’s equally important to recognize that it isn’t always rooted in physical causes. Sometimes it is entirely emotional or situational.
AND THAT’S OKAY.
What’s not okay is to diminish the impact of a person’s emotional process or environment, which is exactly what this “life-threatening disease” model does.
A while back, I talked about reaching the point of no return when I was in the cult. It was the moment that I realized that I would rather die than continue to live the life I was in—that wasn’t an overstatement. I was suicidal for almost two years before I finally left, and one of the things that gave me the courage to break away from the toxicity of the IFB was my suicidality. When I look back on my life, I don’t see that struggle as “dangerous” or as part of a “disease.”
It was a crisis, to be sure—but it was a good crisis. When death was more appealing than my life, I had nothing to lose in trying to make my life worth living. My depression was the signal to me that things couldn’t just go on the way they were. Something had to change.
Had I been taken to a doctor during that time, I could have easily been dismissed as “mentally ill,” given some pills, and sent back into abuse. I might have spent years more, maybe even the rest of my lifetime, trying to battle “depression” (the symptom) rather than the true “disease” (abuse).
I get that the “illness” proponents are trying desperately to end the stigma around depression, but as someone who was depressed for non-medical reasons (still good reasons), I don’t see a true end to stigma.
We might have shifted slightly in our opinion of depressed people, but only because we’ve shifted from thinking of them as emotionally unstable to medically unable to be happy…so technically, the stigma is still there. Sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, desperation—they’re all still “bad.” We’re just more willing to say, “It’s not your fault.”
But I don’t want my emotional state to be acceptable only if it’s caused by an imbalance somewhere. I don’t want to live in a society where being sad is demonized to the point that I either keep it hidden or I go get a pill to make it go away.
I want my emotions to be okay, no matter what. I want to live in a society where having an emotional struggle is as acceptable as having a medical problem. I want to live in a society where depression can be a valid indication that something is off in my environment rather than just an indication of something being off in my body.
The disease model is convenient in a society where minorities and oppressed groups are far more likely to experience depression. It allows us to shake our heads over a “diseased brain” rather than considering what societal factors may be creating an environment in which depression can thrive. It allows us to ignore problems like abuse, discrimination, bullying, economic distress, and prejudice as we scurry around trying to find the magic bullet that will force everyone to be happy with the way things are.
Yes, I struggle with depression. I struggled a lot in high school and college. I struggle less now, but I still struggle (usually when I’m not embracing my emotional work and end up stagnating in the emotion I don’t want to work through).
But NO, I do not have a mental illness or a disease. I don’t have a chemical imbalance. I’m not helpless or in danger because of it. I’ve learned to embrace my downward cycles as an indication that it’s time to make changes in my life or focus on healing old wounds that have been ignored. I’ve found hope. I found my own way of working through it, with the assistance of some amazing people who had the guts to tell me that my emotions weren’t bad or dangerous on their own. It was fucking hard, but it was worth it in the end because I understand my moods better than anyone now, and I know I can sit through the dark times…and grow through them too.
I’m not saying there is never a medical reason for depression. I’m not saying that medication can’t be helpful. I’m not saying that offering assistance isn’t necessary.
But I am saying that the rhetoric that paints depression as nothing more than a physical illness is as damaging, in my opinion, as the rhetoric that paints depression as a character flaw.
What would happen if we stopped talking about depression as if it were the boogyman hiding in the corners of our minds? What would happen if we didn’t assume that emotions were an illness or teach people to be afraid or ashamed of what they are going through?
Maybe, just maybe, we could actually begin to address depression intelligently, allowing each person to figure out what physical, social, and mental components are at play for them. Maybe we’d actually see people capable of working through their depression rather than succumbing to it.