Depression: attitude or illness?

“Well of course if it’s chemical, then it’s a different story,” they backtrack quickly, with that wave of a hand. “I’m not talking about that.” 

I daresay we’ve all heard it. Speakers who lament the depressive state of this generation, and pontificate about how people overindulge in their misery. “If people just pushed themselves a little harder, they’d get over it.” “If you point out to people with depression all the beautiful things they have, they’ll be able to see how they’re being irrational.” “If you help them realise that they matter, their depression can be cured” (actually the last one ran “people who are suicidal will get better when they realise they matter” but let’s make it milder here). Basically, people with depression just have attitude problems.

It’s when they realise how problematic their statement might sound in current discourse that they add in a disclaimer: “if someone is truly depressed, they need medical attention.” But… you just said that depressives will feel better with a smile.

When it comes to mental health, I used to delineate between “uneducated” and “educated” – by which I mean, quite frankly, “religious” and “secular”. See, it’s the dogmatic religionists who don’t believe in this mental health stuff, and then the rest of the world who realise it’s real. Recognition of mental health and religious people don’t go together.

Happily, my perception is slowly changing as I learn and discover organisations headed by co-religionists who provide mental health services despite the insurmountable stigma. However, my conceptual divide has not changed or rather, it has not disappeared. It’s just being reformulated. The new version? “People who don’t understand what mental health is” and “people who do understand what mental health is.” I’m becoming more inclusive as I become increasingly damning because unfortunately many, many, many of my previously defined “educated” are now falling into the first category. 

And why? Because mental health is being misused. At risk of dropping an extremely controversial line, mental health is becoming popular as a social weapon. “I can’t do it, I get really anxious” or “that triggers me, sorry.” Now of course, do pardon the irony, often that is authentic. But let me tell you something: your need to have your pens neatly lined up on your desk does NOT make you OCD. When you have a bad day, you do NOT have depression. When you say that you have a mental illness which you do not – “I meet all the symptoms listed online” (sorry, were you diagnosed by a qualified professional?) – you accomplish nothing but harm. You are reinforcing the idea that depression, anxiety, and OCD (to use the most common ones) are nothing more than excuses. You are feeding the stigma and the dismissal of the mental health illnesses of people who are actually suffering. Everyone has mental health, but not everyone has a mental health illness. 

And that’s what I’ve realised. People are strangely half right in distinguishing between so-called depression and depression. Someone who has had three bad days in a row – sorry to tell you – does not have depression as a result. Someone, on the other hand, who has been struggling to get out of bed for three weeks, probably does.

The cure is a chronic problem: language. As humans we love to overreact, fluff up our moods – hyperboles all the way! But when you say you’re “so depressed” and you just mean sad, it’s a problem because you’re not depressed. You’re entitled to say you’re anxious about something, but not that you have an anxiety disorder. 

Perhaps ironically, the “uneducated” realise something more than general society does when they differentiate albeit in an often degrading way. Depression cannot and should not be subdivided into “attitude” and “illness;” yet it currently is. Someone who truly does have depression is not a person with an attitude problem; they’re sick, and they need help. Proper help which cannot be totaled to a pat on the back. Real depression will not disappear with one cheerful smile. I can guarantee you, it doesn’t work.

About the Author
Raised in South Africa, Tanya graduated cum laude with a BA in French and Philosophy and recently completed her MA in Jewish Studies at Hebrew University. She works in the Hebrew University Business School marketing team as a content writer. She is passionate about social impact, education and nonprofit work.
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