6 Unfair 'Labels' We Give to People With Depression
If you live with depression, you may be familiar with some of the hurtful things people believe about it. For example, some may think people with depression are “drama queens,” “Debbie downers” or are “acting selfish.”
And while many people won’t come right out and say, “You’re being lazy” or “Stop being so selfish” (though some definitely do), some of the “helpful” things people say actually send the same message. You might have heard some of these classic examples:
Have you tried exercising?
You need to focus on the positive.
Have you been praying enough?
Well-intentioned questions or “advice” like these examples are actually based in stigma. Stigma that says depression can always be “prayed away,” stigma that says people who exercise don’t get depressed, stigma that says people who “choose happiness” are immune from depression — stigma that says if you do this one thing, you won’t be depressed anymore.
And this reinforces the misguided belief that continuing to struggle with depression is a “choice.”
But depression is not a choice, and people who struggle with depression aren’t “lazy,” “attention-seeking” or any of the other unfair labels we give them. To shed some light on why these labels are untrue, we created a list of common depression stereotypes and rounded up responses from our mental health community.
Here are six unfair labels we give people who are struggling with depression:
Because many people with depression struggle with getting out of bed or engaging in everyday activities, it can be easy to assume someone is using their mental health as a “free pass” to be lazy. But what this overlooks is that staying in bed is not a “vacation” for someone with depression. Mighty contributor Madelyn Heslet explains it best in her piece, “To the People Who Mistake My Depression for ‘Laziness’”
On the days when I’m not me, the days my depression has me down, I am weak. I am weak, tired, discouraged, sad and grumpy. I am all of those things on my bad days, but I am not lazy. I don’t lay around or miss work because I choose to. I’m in bed because my depression has me glued there, feeling worthless. When you mistake that for laziness and point it out to me, you’re actually making me feel like a bigger waste of space than I already do.
When we hear the word “selfish” in the mental health space, it’s typically when someone uses the ignorant, but common phrase “suicide is selfish.” But as Mighty contributor Mesa Fama points out, “Suicide is not selfish, it is a response to pain.”
The same can be said for depression, which on the surface may appear as selfishness because of a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts. In his piece called, “When I Realized Depression Was Making Me Self-Absorbed,” Mighty contributor Ari J. shares his “self-absorption” was not a result of not caring for others, but more because of the invasiveness of his depressive thoughts.
“It’s not that I am an egocentric person or that I don’t care about other people. It’s simply that all the noise in my head prevents me from listening and connecting.”
The difference here is intention. The word “selfish” implies someone is acting in a certain way because they disregard others or don’t view them as important. But for many people struggling with depression, the pain is all they can see and is all they can focus on.
This label often comes indirectly from statements like, “There are so many people worse off than you,” with the implication that, “You wouldn’t be depressed if you could appreciate all you have.”
But depression and being ungrateful are two separate and unrelated concepts. In fact, so pervasive is this label, many people who experience depression are so worried about being ungrateful they shame and guilt themselves for feeling the way they do — because they have no “real reason” to be depressed. Rebecca Short, a Mighty contributor, wrote about this in her piece, “When Guilt and Depression Go Hand-in-Hand.”
There is a stigma that people who are depressed are egocentric and thankless, and people who hurt themselves or attempt to take their own life are even more selfish and ungrateful. But I am here, as someone who has experienced all of these things to tell you that many people who are depressed are not thankless, they see the good in their life and the blessings that they have.
Because depression is usually characterized by a “sad” mood, people associate people with depression as being “negative” or being “downers.” But in addition to being an unfair generalization, this label overlooks so many people with depression who are “hiding” in plain sight — the people with “smiling depression.”
In her piece entitled, “What You Need to Know About ‘Smiling Depression’,” Mighty contributor Laura Coward wrote:
It’s appearing happy to others and smiling through the pain, keeping the inner turmoil hidden. It’s a major depressive disorder with atypical symptoms, and as a result, many don’t know they’re depressed or don’t seek help. Those who do would prefer to keep their struggle private… Their public, professional and social lives are not suffering. Their façade is put together and accomplished. But behind the mask and behind closed doors, their minds are filled with thoughts of worthlessness, inadequacy and despair.
Being depressed doesn’t automatically make you a “Debbie downer.” And making depression and “negativity” synonymous can keep people who don’t “look like” this stereotype from knowing they need help.
Most people cringe at the idea of being called “attention-seeking,” perhaps because the way it’s used makes it seem interchangeable with the word “desperate.”
In her piece about “crying out” for help, Mighty contributor Elizabeth Leighner writes:
It’s not an attention-seeking act, it’s not a weakness that they’ve fallen to such indescribable depths, it’s not a failure… If they’ve finally made it to that “cry for help” moment, their own mind has been waging a silent war on their soul for far longer than you’ll ever know.
But is seeking “attention” really a bad thing? If we look past the associations we’ve made with the term, it really looks more like help-seeking behavior. In her piece, “My Take on ‘You Just Want Attention,’ and Other Things People Say About Mental Illness” contributor Eliza Blissett shared, “I definitely wanted attention. Why? Because when you’re hurting, you want people to know so that they can help you.”
But perhaps the most damaging label we give to people struggling with depression is that they are unmotivated to get on with everyday tasks, or to get better at all — that they continually “choose” to be this way.
Mighty contributor Lily-Rose Phillips describes this lack of motivation in her piece, “My ‘Lack of Motivation’ Doesn’t Mean I’m Being Lazy”
I already know I need to get on with things. It is constantly on my mind, never actually leaving, and yet I can’t do them. It’s the constant battle between anxiety and depression. The anxiety is gnawing at me telling me I need to do things and the depression is pulling me back and telling me to just sit and mope around instead.
People struggling with depression typically already know what they need to or “should” be doing. The lack of motivation characteristic of depression doesn’t mean someone is automatically an “unmotivated” person, or that they don’t want to get better.
The use of these labels usually stems from a lack of understanding or impatience with people struggling with depression. Even those of us who have experienced depression or are familiar with the symptoms can still find ourselves thinking these things. Instead of meeting people with judgment and characterizing them with unfair labels, we need to meet people who are struggling with compassion and get them the help they need.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
Thinkstock photo via -1001-