Nicole Arbour's New Video Offers a '4-Step Cure' for Depression – There's Just One Problem
Nicole Arbour, a Canadian comedian best known for her videos on YouTube, has a pretty amazing back story.
After getting into a car accident, Arbour lived with debilitating chronic pain, which changed her life so much she became depressed and suicidal.
“It’s almost like when you stub your toe, and you’re like holy fuck that’s the most pain I’ve ever been in ever, is this ever going to stop? But then it doesn’t,” she says in a video called “How I Went From Disabled and Suicidal to Internet Sensation.” “I spent the next eight years trying to pretend that I was OK.”
How I went from disabled and suicidal, to internet sensation…
Posted by Nicole Arbour on Sunday, November 19, 2017
In this same video, Arbour explains how she “decided” to turn her life around. Her recovery story involves hearing Denzel Washington’s voice in her head saying, “It’s not time to give up, it’s time to get up,” buying a Louise Hay self-help book, posting sticky notes with positive messages all around her house and cutting out media that made her feel bad, like horror movies and the news. As a choreographer and former cheerleader, her whole philosophy is based on “cheering for herself,” and it helped her take her life back.
Honestly, good for her. As someone who’s never lived with chronic pain, I would never downplay how much work it took for her to get back on her feet, or question how she chose to do it.
But that’s exactly it. Her story is her story, and we have to stop pretending that every “inspiring” story is a rule. We have to stop using our successes to tell people how to live their lives or pretend everything that worked for us will work for other people.
Which brings us back to that “depression is all in your head” video.
On Thursday, Arbour posted a video on Facebook called, “Why ‘Depression’ Is All In Your Head.” In her infamous style, Arbour uses generalized statements and purposely inflammatory language to lay down the “truth” about how to recover from depression, or at least, the truth that was true for her. And if this doesn’t work for you, well, you’re not trying hard enough.
Why "Depression" Is All In Your Head…
Posted by Nicole Arbour on Thursday, January 11, 2018
“Only one person can get you out of depression, and that is you,” she says. “It’s all in your head. Oh no, I’m holding you accountable for your own feelings, and for your own life.”
It’s not that what she says is wrong, per se. But by using her personal experience to claim that “depression is a choice,” she erases the nuances of living with and recovering from depression. She even offers four steps for getting rid of depression: 1. Keep it real. 2. Develop positive habits. 3. Find something to be excited about. 4. Make the decision that you are no longer depressed.
Because people using their own experience to put down others isn’t uncommon, I want to break down the “truthiness” of some of her statements, in a game I call, “Yes, But — With Nicole Arbour.”
Claim #1: Because the chemicals in our brain are always changing, we can change our own “chemicals” and cure ourselves from depression.
“‘Depression is a chemical imbalance in your head, you can’t just fix it.’ But you can. First, our brains are made of chemicals, that are always changing balances. Sometimes when you have more than one chemical than another, you can have depression symptoms. However, our brains are always changing, and we can change our brains. Do something fun, get a nice hit of dopamine.”
Yes, our brains are always changing, and I actually do think this can be a source of hope for people who live with depression. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life, and although the brain’s ability to change doesn’t mean people predisposed to depression can just think their way out of it, it does mean things can change for you. No one is “doomed” to feel the way they feel now forever. That doesn’t mean it won’t come back. But, there are ways to manage our symptoms, and that is an important reminder.
But, contrary to Arbour’s claim, getting out of depression is simply not about getting more hits of dopamine. She says, “Sometimes when you have more than one chemical than another, you can have depression symptoms.” This actually isn’t the whole truth. According to Harvard Medical School, “to be sure, chemicals are involved in this process, but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high.” It’s confusing she brings this up because in trying to “get real” about depression, she uses a simple misconception — and just uses it to fit into her narrative. “Because depression is a chemical imbalance, and our chemicals are always changing, we can change our own chemicals!”
Claim #2: With depression, you’re either choosing to be a victim or choose to get better.
“I know every single argument that people are going to through at me about how depression is so hard, and you just can’t beat it, and you just can’t get over it. Maybe you enjoy being a victim, or maybe you want to get better.”
Yes, learned helplessness is a real thing. It’s when somebody believes they have no control over their life, and therefore stops trying. It’s obvious why this would be dangerous to someone living with depression.
But, no one struggling to recover from depression is “choosing to be a victim.” Just because there are things some people can do to defeat depression, doesn’t mean it’s simply a matter of “trying hard enough” or “wanting to get better.” Before people can “try to get better,” some people need tools. Sometimes this looks like antidepressants. Sometimes this looks like learning cognitive-behavioral therapy. Sometimes this looks like talk therapy. When we talk about how people “just can’t beat depression,” we don’t mean it’s impossible to beat, but rather sometimes it’s impossible to beat without proper support and tools. And shaming someone into thinking they’re current lack of options is their fault, that they’re the ones choosing to be “sick,” when over 6.3 million adults with a mental illness are uninsured, and an estimated 47 percent of adults are not receiving treatment because of costs is just cruel. If you don’t need extra support, you don’t get to tell people who may or may not have access to support that they are simply making a choice.
Claim #3: Because antidepressants made me feel like a zombie, nobody actually needs antidepressants.
“Antidepressants are not life-long tools. They will never make you happy. When I was on antidepressants, I just felt like a robot who was now functioning, vs a robot that was frozen… being high isn’t feeling better… I think there’s something scary about taking away people’s ability to feel, which is what antidepressants do.”
Yes, antidepressants aren’t for everyone. Yes, oftentimes, you can’t simply take medication for your mental health, make no other changes, and expect everything to be OK. Yes, if antidepressants made you feel like a robot, you had every right to go off of them.
But, your story isn’t everybody’s story. Your depression, which was catalyzed by living with chronic pain, isn’t everyone’s depression. Your recovery story isn’t everyone’s story, and some people’s story involves successfully taking antidepressants. If an antidepressant you’re on makes you numb or makes you feel worse, you should always talk to your doctor. Sometimes feeling like a “zombie” is a sign your medication needs to be adjusted, changed — or maybe you do need to be taken off it. This is an individualized process, and everyone deserves to consider every option.
Claim #4: These four things helped me with depression, and they will work for you.
“Here are my four steps on how to defeat depression…”
Yes, you found something that pulled you out of depression, and that’s great! Maybe you even found social science studies to support a few of your strategies for getting happier (like giving compliments, exercising and connecting with people). Some of these things might help someone with depression, and it’s helpful to share what works for us.
But, just because these things worked for you, doesn’t mean they’ll work for everyone, and doesn’t prove that beating depression is simply a choice. Life is an evolving thing, and everyone has the ability to make positive changes, but when it comes to access to treatment, life circumstances and past trauma, we can’t pretend everyone starts on the same playing field, and therefore everyone needs to same thing.
We need to start having more nuanced conversations about treating depression, and adding more “buts” when people claim they have all the answers. In the video, she does say one thing I really likedL “Depression is real, but it’s also really beatable, and we need to start advertising that more than the fact that it’s a disease.” But, just because depression is beatable doesn’t mean we should use our success stories to shame others. Just like depression develops for many different reasons, there are many ways to get out of it.
If following Arbour’s “four-step plan” doesn’t help you, that doesn’t mean you are “playing a victim” or simply “choosing to be depressed.” And it doesn’t mean you deserve her scorn. While I won’t tell Arbour her recovery story is wrong, what is wrong is using your story to shame people who are still struggling. It’s unhelpful, and, for someone who claims to be a comedian, not funny.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.