Suffering from depression can not only be debilitating and isolating, it can also be downright frustrating. When those around you don't understand it, or when they believe old wives' tales about depression that aren't true, it's easy to feel like a failure because you can't talk yourself out of a diagnosed medical condition. Personally, I have been told to "think positive thoughts," and have been offered myriad lifestyle advice from people who neither suffer from nor understand depression. Recent research has indicated that the brains of people who suffer from depression are actually working differently, meaning it's not just a condition that can be "snapped out of."
Harvard Medical School reported that the hippocampus region of the brain — responsible for emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system — is actually smaller in some people who suffer from clinical depression. Despite advances in research, the underlying causes of depression are still somewhat of a mystery. During the Middle Ages, "Most people thought that mentally ill people were possessed by the devil, demons, or witches and were capable of infecting others with their madness," an article by Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D., Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. on the mental health and wellness website Mental Help reported. "Treatments of choice included exorcisms, and other more barbaric strategies such as drowning and burning."
While this seems absurd today, there are plenty of other old wives' tales about depression that simply aren't true, though some of them are still believed.
1. You Can Talk Yourself Out Of Depression
If I could talk myself out of being depressed my life would be a whole lot easier. Here is why this misguided idea is both absurd and dangerous. "I read recently of a study in which 75 percent of adults said that someone with depression could get better just by being more positive," Psych Central reported. "Can you imagine the same 75 percent saying that someone who is paralyzed just needs to work out more ...?" Understanding that depression is a diagnosable medical condition is an important first step to both validating and understanding depression sufferers. One can't talk themselves out of depression any better than they can talk themselves out of a broken bone.
2. Depression Is The Same As Grief
One of the main misconceptions about depression is that it's situational versus biological. While people already pre disposed to depression can be triggered by traumatic events, suffering from depression is different than feeling sad. "In 1621, Robert Burton published Anatomy of Melancholy, in which he described the psychological and social causes (such as poverty, fear, and solitude) of depression," Mental Help noted. While all of these things can trigger sadness, someone suffering from depression often feels hopeless and worthless when everything in their life is going great.
3. Depression Is A Character Flaw
During the 18th and 19th centuries, depression was written off as a character flaw or inherited weakness, according to Mental Help. "[This led] to the common thought that affected people should be shunned or locked up. As a result, most people with mental illnesses became homeless and poor, and some were committed to institutions." While you might be more likely to experience depression if it runs in your family, people don't get depressed because they are weak willed.
4. Depression Can Be Cured With Bizarre Treatments
In the beginning of the 19th century doctors began to develop new "treatments" for depression that included barbaric things like holding a person underwater just short of drowning them and spinning them around on a stool to induce dizziness, which was thought to rearrange the brain, according to Mental Help. In 2017 doctors understand much more about how to treat depression and now recommend things like cognitive behavior therapy, meditation, and medication.
5. Lobotomies Curing Depression
When near drowning and chair spinning failed, doctors turned to lobotomies, which is scraping out part of the brain's frontal lobe. This horrific procedure was practiced well into the 20th century and often resulted in terrible outcomes such as the inability to speak, increased temperature, vomiting, bladder and bowel incontinence, and eye problems, as well apathy, lethargy, and abnormal sensations of hunger, Live Science reported. "The main long-term side effect was mental dullness," Barron Lerner, a medical historian and professor at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, told Live Science.
6. Depression Is Physical
One of the most dangerous ideas about depression developed in the 1950s when doctors began to tout something known as endogenous depression, which was believed to be caused by physical problems. "People with endogenous depression were supposed to view themselves as the source of their own suffering and to think that everything was their fault," Mental Help explained. In 2017 doctors know that depression can manifest as physical symptoms, though it's now believed that depression causes physical pain, not the other way around.
7. Depression Is Environmental
Another troubling debunked belief is called neurotic or reactive depression. According to Mental Help, in the 1950s and 60s, it was thought that external or environmental events caused depression. "People with reactive depression were thought to develop somatic (physical) symptoms and to make suicide attempts as a means of mobilizing support from the people around them."
Basically, this idea is rooted in the theory that people are just looking for attention, which is pretty off the mark. While most of these ideas have been disproven, people who don't suffer from — and don't understand — depression still buy into some of them, which can leave a loved one who is depressed feeling isolated and shamed. While a number of factors can contribute to depression, every sufferer is different, which means there is no one-size-fits-all treatment.
It's true that there are new studies that indicate that people are being over-medicated for depression, though I can honestly say that I don't think I would be alive today without medication. Regardless of what you think of psych meds, medication shaming a friend who is depressed is never OK. What's more, understanding that a depression is not a character flaw, or something that a person can control with willpower, is an important step to ensuring people get the help they need.