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No, New York Times, You Won’t ‘Catch’ My Depression or Obesity After COVID-19

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

On Tuesday, June 1, The New York Times published an article, entitled, “How to Rearrange Your Post-Pandemic ‘Friendscape.’” The piece’s author, Kate Murphy, contended that after the coronavirus pandemic, people should clean up their friend lists; among individuals who should be excised are depressed people and those who are obese, as well as comrades who engage in undesirable behaviors.

“[D]epressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same. The reverse is also true: You will be more studious, kind and enterprising if you consort with studious, kind and enterprising people. That is not to say that you should abandon friends when they are having a hard time. But it’s a good idea to be mindful of who you are spending the majority of your time with — whether on- or off-line — because your friends’ prevailing moods, values and behaviors are likely to become your own.”

While Murphy may be well-intentioned, the reality is that friendship can be a wonderful opportunity to bridge differing moods, values and behaviors. Furthermore, depressed people are worthy of friendship with non-depressed people; one’s mood disorder isn’t contagious like COVID-19. Matter of fact, embedded in friendship are chances for learning and also support and accountability. I had a three-year companionship with someone who was hard of hearing. His hearing loss didn’t rub off on me any more than my depression influenced him. Instead, through our connection, we both learned about the other person’s condition. I discovered more about the violations of deaf civil liberties than I ever could have imagined, and he became aware of the reality that people with mental illness are several times more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violent crimes. The broadening of my worldview through friendship is something I shall always cherish.

Also, Murphy seems to be unaware that depression can often be controlled with medication. If she were correct, then depressed people would solely be dwelling on the tribulations of our existences; the reality is that I have had meaningful relationships even though I have a diagnosed mood disorder. It is not as if my condition is a state where I merely share my lugubrious thoughts in conversations with friends, and they catch them like the plague. More often, I divulge my creative ideas, my passions and details as quotidian as how my pets are doing. We all have great qualities and traits about which we are less than proud; it is important to recognize companionship with a depressed friend as an opportunity to broaden one’s perspective. One may even help hold one’s friend accountable to a treatment regimen, which can be a blessing and a learning opportunity for both parties.

In addition to stigmatizing depression, Murphy is fundamentally incorrect about the nature of obesity, as well as its relationship to friendship. Just because someone is overweight does not mean that that person indulges in poor eating choices. One’s weight is at least partially genetic, and many mental health medications are strongly correlated with obesity. For instance, my body weight has more than doubled since I was 19 and was first diagnosed with mental health conditions. This is partially the result of my genetics, and partially because of the pills I am taking. It is worth noting that during the past 17 years, I have had exactly zero cookies, cakes or candies. Murphy, however, has a reductive idea of what it means to be overweight; my friends aren’t magically made fatter by their acquaintance with me, as heaviness isn’t comprised of simplistic lifestyle choices that are contagious. Furthermore, in our 21st century, long-distance companionship milieu, sometimes I have zero physical contact with friends, meaning that I have never shared a meal or beverage with many of my comrades. Instead of stigmatizing obese people, Murphy would do better to understand the etiology of being overweight.

While I do agree with the New York Times writer that it is a good idea to reevaluate our post-pandemic friendships, I would suggest that any calculus be made upon values such as kindness and openness, not conditions like depression or obesity. That means that if someone has been caring during the pandemic when others weren’t anywhere to be found, then that person is a treasure worth keeping. Above all, when evaluating one’s friendships, entertain the importance of being open to individuals with lifestyles and values divergent from our own. We learn through the sharing of differences. Instead of being afraid that we will catch someone’s depression or obesity by osmosis, consider each companionship as an opportunity to grow from another person’s unique way of viewing the world.

Photo by Jade Orth on Unsplash

Originally published: June 6, 2021
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