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It's Time to Change Our 'Black and White' View of Depression


I’ve decided to make this post because I’ve noticed there’s still a large stigma when it comes to mental health and specifically depression. I think the stigma stems from not only lack of knowledge and understanding of depression, but also fear — “What if one day that could happen to me?”

Well if it makes you feel any better, it likely already has happened to you in some capacity.

Let me explain.

I’ve been a psychologist for four years now and over that time I’ve been “inside” the mind of probably about 1,000 individuals. During that time I’ve gained a lot of insight into the human psyche and it’s changed my perspective of mental health and well-being.

I don’t view depression from an all-or-nothing lens, where you either have it or you don’t. I now see it as more of a continuum, where at a given point in your life you fall somewhere along the spectrum of mood and emotion.

The tool that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental illness is called the DSM-5. If you meet a certain number of diagnostic criteria for more than two weeks, you’re given a diagnosis. But what if you don’t meet enough criteria or have enough symptoms? Does that make your struggle any less valid? The current stat is that 8 percent of Canada’s population will experience major depression sometime in their lives, but those are just the ones who meet the diagnosis. If you included people who met only some of the criteria or for less than two weeks, that number would be much higher.

I say this not to discredit the DSM (it’s great to have a way to categorize information), but because often times people with depression are seen as a part of the “other.” The “other” group, the “mental illness” group. It’s this black-or-white view that causes the stigma and the bias. We use this belief as a defense mechanism, to protect our psyche. As long as people who experience depression are a part of the “other,” then at least it can never be us. And so I’m sorry to burst that protective bubble, but it can. It can so easily be any one of us.

It’s only after someone experiences a depressive episode that they begin to view the situation differently. If that person held a belief about mental health being black-or-white before, it is usually shattered after their own personal experience.

Check out some of these symptoms of Major Depressive Episode (this is not all, just some):

– Depressed mood most of the day
– Loss of interest in activities
– Insomnia
– Loss of energy
– Feelings of worthlessness
– Can’t concentrate or make a decision

So common, right? So the difference between someone with depression and someone without is that the person with depression has been experiencing more of these things for a longer period of time. But how many times have you been going through a period where you experienced some of these things and you wondered when you would feel happy again?

What I’m trying to get at is there’s a fine, blurry line between “depression” and “not depression,” so the stigma so commonly held by parts of society makes absolutely no sense.

Depression is a mood disorder, and moods and emotion are a part of the human experience. Like every other aspect of the human experience, it only makes sense that sometimes the balance will be thrown off and moods will get wonky. This fact is certainly not a reflection of the “strength” of someone. Like catching a cold or a major illness like heart disease, it happens.

But while colds and heart disease have contributing factors, so does depression.

Feelings of depression can be caused by an external source (our circumstances), an internal source (our thoughts) and our biology. Usually it’s a combination. When a doctor prescribes an antidepressant, they are not helping your circumstances or the things you’re telling yourself.

If you’ve been feeling depressed, I’d suggest getting everything else on point before trying medication. Get the right amount of sleep, get some physical activity and eat what makes you feel good. Change your circumstances; make some important decisions that have been weighing you; change the things you’re telling yourself, talk to a friend, get therapy.

Many of my clients are embarrassed to sit in the waiting room at the clinic, ashamed to be having to talk to a therapist. I tell them to let go of the embarrassment, because everyone is dealing with something or other, and this is theirs right now. It’s not a reflection of them, they’re just figuring stuff out and therapy is a cool way to do it. I also tell them that if they have been given a diagnosis of depression or a prescription for an antidepressant, to not incorporate that into their identity at all. Feeling depressed doesn’t make you a “depressed person.”

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Thinkstock photo via sodapix sodapix