Devaluing Depression

While 2018 may be marked out as a year of monumental insanity, it is also a year where we seem to be taking the baby steps of progress. The #MeToo movement has been a long time coming, and its momentum this year has been truly awe-inspiring for those of us who understand that all forms of sexual assault are unacceptable, and hate treating our fellow humans less than humanely. In other progress news we have an increased awareness of issues surrounding mental health problems.

It is great that awareness of mental illness is on the rise; like #MeToo it is a long time coming; it is utterly deplorable that we have collectively treated those of us with mental health issues with less than the full measure of humanity.  Raising awareness is the only way to destigmatise normality.

If you live a life without mental health issues – be that depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, social anxiety, psychosis, the list goes on and on and on – then you should really count yourself very lucky indeed. I have battled with depression and social anxiety for as long as I can remember, and I have only been able to build a functional life due to the support of (some of) the people around me.

I have spent a long time wrestling with depression. My way through is not everyone else’s. My way through is almost a form of giving up. Let me take you through it, as a form of an example.

I feel that depression shows that we have not given up in the fight against all of the ills of the world. Not feeling able to cope with life is an absolutely natural reaction to the fuckwittery which humanity forces upon itself every hour of every day. I have chosen to accept that I live my life at a lower register than that which we perhaps tell ourselves is healthy. I feel healthier for knowing that I am, and I always will be, deeply and irrevocably miserable. I enjoy the happy bits more for knowing that.

I need to remember, however, that that’s just my coping mechanism; for other people it wouldn’t be so healthy. It took me many years of sitting in darkened rooms, self-medicating, to realise that this was my own personal path. Once I grasped it, once I discovered who I was, a weight lifted for me.

If I can discover such a way to handle my crippling social anxiety I will be sure to spread it far and wide. Faking it until I make it just leaves me feeling hollow and used after I speak to anybody new.

That’s all well and good as an introduction and a bit of background. It’s not helpful and it’s not a way of widening the discourse on any level. This post was always going to be about the title: “Devaluing Depression”. I feel that we do devalue all forms of mental illness, whether we mean to or not.

As I have previously written, I find the school run a bit of a chore: for whatever reason I find myself to be utterly invisible, and so I feel rather gloomy around the school run time. I found myself about to say that I was “depressed” about the whole school run experience, when I was just a bit sad. I should know better. Conflating “depression” with being “a bit sad” is devaluing depression.

Depression is so much more than sadness: there is no cause, although external factors can lower the bottom of the pit. There is no cheering up, although depressed people will feel happy at times. The feelings of hopelessness, of helplessness, of worthlessness cannot simply be cured by being told that you have such a lot to live for and to be happy about. That’s ignoring the issue, and minimising what you are being told. It is real, and it is tangible, and it is utterly crippling. It is not just “sadness”.

I had said to myself something I have railed against so often when other people did it (worthlessness as a product of my own hypocrisy – that old chestnut), so why had I done it? As a society, we have a habit of adopting that which we fear most. For instance, black people have reclaimed a word I will not use, and they have done so in a positive way. Gay people have done a similar thing with words like “Queer”. The problem is that it is not always done quite so effectively; sometimes it’s just shit.

Schizophrenic has become shorthand for a bit agitated or representing many differing viewpoints simultaneously; OCD has become shorthand for fussy or employing a high degree of organisational effectiveness; Panic attacks are claimed by people who are overwhelmed. It devalues real illnesses.

I will concede that this is a better generalisation than the “Mental illness is just laziness” or “People with mental illness are dangerous” tropes we have been lumbered with for so long. News reports conflating schizophrenia with violent tendencies are far worse than our own conflation of manic behaviour with schizophrenia. Either way, both sides point to more education being necessary.

I understand that we need to destigmatise all mental illness, but trivialising them is not the way. I want to live in a world where the same reaction is garnered whether the person has received a diagnosis of a mental illness or a broken leg. It’s not like it’s contagious; it just needs a bit of human warmth, care and understanding. I tend to take the view that all humans like to be treated that way.

I understand that this is perhaps not as prevalent as I thought it was that morning in the school car park, but it is alarming. What I think would be awful is if, while we all fully wrap our heads around the idea that mental health is just like physical health, and so worthy of sharing, that the definition of what each mental illness is gets muddied. Self-diagnosing with any illness is very dangerous, be that mental or physical. We must always seek medical advice when we are experiencing problems.

I understand that this is hardly the cheeriest blog post in the world, but it is a necessary one. It is something which – like gender – is coming up more and more. It is something which shapes our world, whether we are just realising it or not. It is something which is going to affect every one of us.