Sugar-coating depression not helping

Every time a suicide shakes a community, there’s an outpouring of concern about mental health and depression. Whether it happens close to home or it’s the loss of an icon like Chris Cornell, it instigates masses of posts about how willing people are to help if you’re struggling, and how well they understand what you’re going through. Which really sounds nice, but it’s mostly poppycock.

Let’s put a pin in the unfortunate reality that many people don’t accept mental health as a real issue at all, and the rest of us are still only comfortable hearing about it in its mildest forms or in retrospect. There’s an obvious — and potentially dangerous — survivorship bias in the way we talk about depression.

To be fair, we’ve certainly created change. Sharing experiences of high-functioning anxiety and depression has begun to border on downright fashionable. The well-intentioned expectation is that such openness will normalize the discussion of mental health, but that ignores the reality that not all mental health problems are created equal.

Thanks to our skewed conversation, going for a jog or getting more sleep has become all you’re supposed to need to get through depression. So people with bigger struggles ask questions like, “If Winston Churchill kept his black dog on a leash well enough to run a whole country, why the fudge can’t I just get out of bed and take a shower every day?”

In short, the surge in social shares about minor mental health issues, because they almost invariably fail to recognize that they are minor, may make people even less likely to get help with worse problems. It adds an extra level of shame when everyone else seems to cope so much better with the same issues.

Those brave posts paint a picture of depression with limited impacts, and the stigma of deeper difficulty still creates serious long-term repercussions. Getting real about the severe side of depression can mean you’ll be judged as a poor employee, a bad parent, an unreliable person.

To create real change, we need to accept that depression changes the way a person moves through the world, and people need to be able to lead fulfilling lives despite that. That needs to be true across the spectrum, but right now the underlying message that anxiety and depression can be easily overcome without skipping a beat is damaging our ability to openly approach severe issues.

So you should feel safe posting about how you had to cancel your plans for a night out so you could squeeze in some self-care, but you shouldn’t kid yourself into believing that you’re helping someone who just lost their job due to unexplained absences. In fact, you shouldn’t even assume you understand. You probably don’t.

We always look back after depression has killed someone and say that of course we would have done anything to prevent it. It’s a genuine sentiment, but if we really mean it, we have to do so much better. And we could start by acknowledging that the sugar-coated confessions of grin-and-bear-it triumphs over mental health issues aren’t helping.

Originally published in Our London on May 25, 2017.