As the most common mental illness in the United States, clinical depression affects approximately 17 percent of Americans at least once during their lifetime. So, even if you are fortunate enough to never experience the illness yourself, chances are that someone close to you will suffer from depression at some point. Although depression manifests itself differently depending on the person — with symptoms that can include feelings of intense sadness and hopelessness, sleep disturbances and even physical pain — the common thread is that it is a serious illness that can make it extremely difficult to live your life.
Unfortunately, depression is widely stigmatized today, despite years of public health educational efforts; and this stigma is largely due to numerous misconceptions about the illness. I've heard frustrating and insulting comments about depression more times than I can count, sometimes from people who intended no harm, but were simply ignorant. To hear some people tell it, depression is a choice, a sign of weakness or simply the result of people wallowing in self-pity rather than focusing on the positive.
Unfortunately, even words spoken with no ill will can be extremely harmful to those who hear them. When someone is struggling with depression, hearing hurtful misconceptions can make them feel even worse about themselves, as well as discourage them from getting help or treating their problem like a real disease, instead of a character flaw. It's up to all of us to educate ourselves and do our part understand the illness, its causes, and why seeking treatment is so important — not only so we can support people in our lives who struggle with depression, but so we can make sure to not contribute to the greater ignorance of it.
So, let's establish what's not true about depression. These 8 misconceptions need to be debunked STAT:
1. Depression Is A Choice
This is one of the most frustrating misconceptions about depression — and not only is it completely invalidating to the person suffering, but it flies in the face of modern medical knowledge. Depression is caused by a complex combination of biological, chemical, environmental, and genetic factors. Research is ongoing, but we do know that depression is not a choice — it's a legitimate illness that no one chooses to have. The platitude "happiness is a choice" doesn't apply to a person with depression and it's an insulting thing to tell someone who is depressed, even if you are trying to be encouraging.
2. If Someone Appears Outwardly Happy, They Aren't Depressed
Sometimes, a person's struggle with depression is evident to the people around them through their behavior or other symptoms. But there's also what psychologists refer to as "smiling depression", where the sufferer appears happy and healthy to friends, family, and coworkers. Due to the stigma surrounding depression, many people are keenly aware that they risk the judgement of others if they appear outwardly depressed — so they put an excruciating amount of effort into appearing "normal" and "happy".
None of us spend 24 hours a day with anyone, so we don't know if they're using every ounce of energy they have to force a smile all day or otherwise hide their depression. Someone may appear perfectly fine in their social and professional life, but feel despondent. You just don't know, and so you have no right to assess whether someone is "actually" suffering from depression or actively dealing with a depressive episode.
3. People Have No Right To Be Depressed If Their Lives Are Going Well
Since depression is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, it can affect anyone. A fulfilling career, loving family and friends, and financial security are all things to be grateful for — but they don't make a person immune to depression. And, while we're on the topic, please don't assume that a depressed person is ungrateful for all the good things in their life. It's possible to recognize and appreciate your blessings while simultaneously grappling with depression.
4. Medication Will 'Fix' Depression Immediately
There is no quick way to cure depression. Medication can certainly be helpful, but a pill alone is generally not going to solve the problem. In most cases, a combination of medication and psychotherapy is the most effective way to treat depression.
Furthermore, it typically takes up to six weeks for a patient to feel the effects of an antidepressant and be able to assess whether or not it's helping. Since many people need to try a variety of medications before they find one that makes a difference in their lives, there can be a long period of trial and error in this area of treatment.
5. Depression Is A Sign Of Weakness
We all know that a person with a physical illness like diabetes or a thyroid condition isn't "weak," and depressed individuals don't deserve that label, either. In fact, anyone dealing with any illness (either physical or mental) is not weak — having an illness is not a sign of anything, except that someone has an illness. And depression is an illness — it's not the result of weakness or an inability to suck up the fact that life isn't perfect.
6. Sadness And Depression Are The Same Thing
Literally everyone has experienced sadness at some point in their lives. It's a natural human emotion that can occur for many reasons, from the loss of a loved one to a rough breakup. While it's true that extreme sadness is a hallmark symptom of depression, people without depression experience sadness, too — and eventually, they rebound. Their sadness goes away on its own without therapy or medication.
The sadness and despair experienced by people with depression feels different; it can be overwhelming and unrelenting. And one of the most frustrating things about it? There's usually not one single reason that the depressed person is depressed; rather, the illness can simply make it seem like everything in life is bleak. "Depressed" and "sad" are not synonymous, and using them interchangeably minimizes the suffering experienced by people with clinical depression.
7. Depression Shouldn't Be Talked About
Many people believe that depression is not something we should talk about — that letting someone talk about their depression will only make them more depressed and cause them to dwell on their unhappiness. If your friend or family member is depressed, it can definitely be helpful at times to distract them by planning fun activities and chatting about other things. But depression shouldn't be the elephant in the room that is never discussed. If you avoid the topic at all costs and change the subject every time they try to tell you about their struggle, a depressed person can often end up feeling as though you think they should be ashamed of their illness.
Depressed people often feel lonely and isolated, so showing that you care and want to understand can make a huge difference. If someone you know is struggling with depression, be empathetic, ask thoughtful questions and make sure they know how much you care. If you don't know where to start, try these helpful tips for talking to a loved one with depression. Letting someone know that they can open up to you is more than just helpful — it has the potential to be life-saving. If the topic is openly discussed, a depressed person will be more likely to tell you if they have an urge to harm themselves.
8. Depression Isn't That Serious
While depression can certainly be treated, it is a serious illness and it should not be ignored or expected to simply go away on its own. Untreated depression is the leading cause of suicide — but even when depression doesn't result in tragedy, its effects can be devastating. It can cause the sufferer to withdraw from loved ones, have problems at school or work, and live every day in a state of despair and hopelessness. No one deserves that.
When people do seek help for this serious illness, over 80 percent report that treatment is helpful. Unfortunately, about 80 percent of depressed individuals do not receive treatment. Acknowledging depression as a serious illness seems like a logical first step in making people feel that they need and deserve professional help.
We need to debunk these dangerous misconceptions about depression and recognize that it is not a choice, a sign of weakness, a ploy for attention or an unimportant matter. Depression will always exist and will continue to affect many people — so we all need to do our part and ensure that we are not perpetuating harmful misconceptions about the illness.