Friday, December 31, 2010

Depression Is a Disease

I was in the midst of writing a year-end, "lessons learned" blog post, when this tweet popped up on my screen, from @adamslisa:

".@ amazing u could tweet something that so clearly displayed your lack of understanding of a mental disease. it's no choice."

This immediately caught my attention because one of my (many) pet peeves is a misunderstanding of mental illness in general, and depression specifically. So I did some backtracking and I found this tweet from a Twitter account called (ironically, in my opinion), @TheDailyLove:

"Depression exists in selfish people. Step outside yourself, help others & you will feel better!"

This is around the time I lost my cool. 

Many of you know that I've struggled with depression. It's not something I'm ashamed of, and it's not something I think I or anyone else should have to hide. In fact, I think it's something more people should talk about, because if more so-called "normal" people discussed their experiences with depression and other mental illnesses, more sufferers might feel bold enough to seek out help for themselves.

The tweet by @TheDailyLove only further contributes to the senses of shame and self-loathing so many people who suffer from depression already feel. It says, "You are a selfish person, which is why you feel the way you do. If you were just a better person - less selfish, more oriented toward others - you would automatically feel better. In effect, your character flaw is why you feel awful. You earned this condition." This belies a common opinion among many people who have never experienced the depths of depression: that really, it's within someone's control to simply suck it up and pull themselves out of it, if only they truly wish to be better.

Surely, this is true for some people - there are no absolutes, after all. But for many, many others - and certainly the vast majority of those suffering from clinical depression - it is not something one can simply think one's way out of. Doctors and scientists suspect that clinical depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Much like a diabetic, whose body is unable to regulate blood sugar, or a person with cancer, whose body is unable to check some types of cell growth, a depressed person's brain is not functioning in a way that we consider "normal." It's not something they can just will themselves out of; it's a disease.

Some people tout the mind-body connection and the power to think positively in order to change one's physical condition. I don't doubt that one's attitude can influence one's health to some extent. But if someone recently diagnosed with diabetes said, "You know, I'm going to forgo regular blood sugar checks and insulin injections and just think my blood sugar into a normal range," most of us would raise our eyebrows. We understand diabetes as a disease; we need to understand depression in the same way.

If positive thinking and "stepping outside oneself" could fix depression, if a desire to be less selfish - and I would argue with the notion that depressed people are necessarily selfish - cured this disease, I do not know a single person who has suffered from depression who would not leap at that opportunity to fix it. To have been truly, deeply depressed; to have stared into the darkest depths of one's soul and questioned one's desire to go on living; to have known absolute despair for weeks, months, even years on end - I don't know anyone who doesn't wish that it was as simple as thinking it away.

Mastin Kipp, the man behind @TheDailyLove, did every clinically depressed person in the world a huge disservice when he called them selfish people. Selfishness doesn't cause depression; if anything, it's the other way around. In my experience, when the weight of living is so heavy that I can hardly stand the thought of another day, let alone actually compel myself to get up and live my life, my pain makes my life so difficult that I can barely look outside myself. It is not that I am an inherently selfish person; it is that my pain is so deep, my disease so severe, that I literally cannot look past my borders.

Kipp attempted to clarify his statement in a much longer blog post. He did not do himself, or people who have experienced clinical depression, any favors in doing so. He elaborated, 
"What I should have said was: 'Selfishness can contribute to depression, being of service to others can help you feel better.' I have found in my own life that when I am helping others, focused on being of service and not thinking about my problems, I feel better. I have experienced that my depression starts with repression. When I isolate myself and just think about 'my' problems or what other people did 'to me' it only feeds the beast. So my conclusion has been when I am 'repressed', I end up 'depressed'. I am not a medical doctor; I am not a psychiatrist - but I have overcome depression."
While I appreciate that Kipp puts his assertion that "Selfishness can contribute to depression, being of service to others can help you feel better," in the context of his personal experiences, I would point out that once again, he ignores the very serious implications of blaming the afflicted (to call us victims does many of us a disservice, I think). A clinically depressed person is not always fully in control of his or her thoughts and behaviors. Our brain chemistry is out of balance; many of us can barely get out of bed every morning without the proper regimen of drugs and therapy and support systems, and that's if we're lucky to find something that works for us. To call that selfishness, and to suggest that volunteering at the local soup kitchen would solve that problem, is beyond inaccurate; it's cruel.

It is cruel to suggest that a clinically depressed person's condition is caused even in part by selfishness or any other controllable behavior, or that it can be fixed by learning to just be less selfish and more focused on others. Clinical depression is a disease, just like diabetes or cancer or any other diagnosable medical condition. We cannot just think it away.

I'm not saying that people who have clinical depression should wallow in dark pits of despair, moaning "Woe is me," day in and day out without ever doing anything to help themselves. That is not what we need to heal. What we need is a voice that truly advocates for us and our healing. What we need is people who say, "You are not wrong for feeling this way. You are not broken, you are not selfish, and you did not bring this on yourself. You have a disease, and it is treatable. You deserve a better version of life, and there are resources out there to help you find that." Each of us should be encouraged to seek a treatment that works best for each individual's unique condition, whether it be group or individual counseling, medication, inpatient treatment, or a combination of the above or other treatments and medical procedures available. Some people will be able to go it alone; many of us will not. And that's okay. We are not flawed or weak for not being able to fix ourselves alone. What is not okay is for any one of us to be made to believe that we caused this condition, that we brought it on ourselves even in part, through selfishness or other character flaws.

I am willing to give credit where it is due. Kipp does get one thing right when he implies that we can change our condition. There are resources available to us. We can seek treatment, we can ask our friends and family for help, and we can learn to love ourselves. It's a long and bumpy road, and it's definitely not one that I'm done traveling. But I believe, through a combination of therapy, medication, and a dedication to self-improvement, that I'll keep getting better. And no one - not Mastin Kipp, not society, not anyone - will ever make me believe that I did this to myself.


Asking for help was one of the hardest things I ever did. I still struggle with it when I have recurrences. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, be it situational or clinical, please seek help. In addition to the many friends and family members you have who love you and want to help you - and trust me, they love you, even if you don't see it now - there are many resources available to you. You have local crisis centers, therapists, and medical professionals who specialize in exactly what you're experiencing. The links below provide some general information, but they do not substitute for the opinion of a qualified professional. And as always, if you are considering hurting yourself or others, please seek emergency medical help immediately or dial 9-1-1.

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Lastly, I am not medical professional or a therapist, and my advice should not be taken in lieu of theirs. I can only tell you about my personal experience and share the lessons I've learned. I hope they're helpful to you, but I also strongly recommend that you seek out professional medical and/or psychological opinions. 

If anyone feels that my commentary is inaccurate or has done more harm than good, please leave me a comment below. I only want to share my own experience and advocate for what I believe is true. If you believe I am doing a disservice, please tell me - even if it's in the form of an anonymous comment. 

And as always, polite and respectful comments are always welcome.


Caroline said...

I love you. Thank you.

Steve Woodruff said...

Well said. Depression is complex and has many roots and outgrowths, but for some (this was my case), brain chemistry was the chief factor, and nothing lifted the clouds until I was on medication to fix the medical problem.

Katherine C. James said...

Beautifully, intelligently written. Wonderful work, Erin. Thank you.

Maxmillian Hencke said...

A very well-argued piece. Great post, Erin.

thelittlefluffycat said...


Katherine said...

Wonderfully written. True and very true. I'm so glad you took the time to write this.

Rena said...

What a jackhole. Him...not you. You know my stance on this considering my history. Beautifully written, as always. Happy New Year, gorgeous!

Erin said...

Thanks to all of you for your supportive comments. My hope is that what I've written might lessen someone else's pain a little.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely. Perfect. Spot on.

Unknown said...

I thought I commented, but apparently Blogger ate it. So trying again---

I have battled depression off and on since I was a teenager and have blogged about it several times. It really gets my goat when people think you can just "snap out of it," or go work out to make yourself feel better. Not that simple. I also don't like when people say suicide is a selfish thing. Argh.

Anyway, I'm so glad you posted this and I just RT'd your tweet. I hope lots of people read it!

Happy New Year and thanks for stopping by my place! Following you now!
(this is @erinlynn76 from Twitter!)

Anonymous said...

Wow! I don't know you at all, I just followed you. But thank you so so much for this. I have tears in my eyes. I have suffered from depression too, and it was hurtful to read that ignorant tweet. I don't talk about my depression at all, with exception to close friends via DM. I actually spend a lot of time on Twitter trying to help others and make them feel better. This helps me to be happy also, and if that is selfish then so be it. But I will not be ashamed of something I can't control. And this post has re-affirmed that for me. Thank you again. I will continue to help others. I enjoy it. Wishing you all the best. Thanks again. Beautifully written.

Erin said...

@Anonymous: You are exactly who I wrote this for: the person who was stung to the core by those words. I think it's wonderful that you've found a way to feel better by helping others.

I want to clarify that I do believe that for some people, helping others can help them to feel better. But where I take issue with that tweet is the notion that all depression is caused by selfishness (something one could conceivably control), and that everyone's depression can be eliminated simply by not being selfish anymore.

You seem to have found something that works to help you feel better, and I applaud that. I hope you - and each of us, really - continue to grow and find happiness without the burdens of shame and stigma.

I Am Gracie B said...

wonderful, erin. thank you for speaking up for yourself and for others who cannot, for whatever reason. depression is such a sensitive topic for so many people, for so many reasons. thank you!! :)

Anonymous said...

RE your comment, Erin.

Thank you for taking the time to reply, I also want to clarify that while I enjoy helping others which helps me to an extent, it took me a long time to reach a point in which I feel happiness within myself. And recently those bad feelings that seem to come from nowhere and for no reason have been creeping back. This post has also encouraged me to face this, rather than shut it out. The post came at the perfect time for me. So thank you. Again.

Anonymous said...

Ps: I completely agree with your comments in the article. On all counts.

Anonymous said...

yes to all of this.

i believe that most people don't understand depression, and i wish that they would stop referring to it as if they did. Until you have actually suffered through it, i really don't think one can have any idea at all.

Several years ago, in one of my darkest times, i remember my cousin/close friend just standing by the bed and practically screaming "Why can't you just get up?" to which of course i responded by crying more. Years later, she went through a period of depression herself and came through on the other side. And though we had both moved in some regards, she actually apologized to me for that day and said she had no idea what i was going through, and that she couldn't imagine anyone saying that to her when she was in that place.

which all just a really long-winded story to say how exactly spot-on i found this entry. and thanks for sharing. and for standing up for those of us who generally just keep our thoughts on this buried.

sorry for spewing all over your comments. but thanks.

Elvis Fontenot said...

Big hug from me. Well said.

Erin said...

@zalary - Never apologize for spewing on my comments! My clothes, my shoes? Maybe (ok, definitely). But for speaking your mind in a perfectly civilized manner? Never! I always appreciate thoughtful comments from others.

@Elvis Fontenot - I love hugs, even from strangers. Thanks.

Streetlights94 said...

It's very dangerous to speak in absolutes, things like "always, never, etc." For some who suffer with depression, service and helping others really helps. And there are all sorts of depression, clinical, postpartum, etc. And for some, being inward and selfish could cause a depression. (Notice I said 'a'). The point is, I think, is that depression, like all illnesses, is very individual. And people who suffer from it should find what will work for them. I struggle with depression, too, and it's harder for me in the winter and/or at certain dates because of life's experiences. I've chosen to not use medication for different reasons. We all have different paths to walk, and I'm very open with what I'm feeling.

Regardless, depression is very real. And just like diabetes, or Chron's, or any other disease, it must be taken seriously and be maintained in a manner that is beneficial to the person.

Erin said...

@Cristina - You always leave such wise, tempered comments. You are absolutely right that Kipp's words do apply to some people. I think that where I most objected to his statement was his implication that the cause and "fix" he identified applied to everyone (there was attempt at qualification in his tweet). It was a gross oversimplification, though I may also be guilty of oversimplifying in my response. The truth is that the causes of depression vary widely, and each individual has to find the way of dealing with it that works best for him or her. No one - not me, not Kipp, not anyone - should portray his or her own solution as appropriate for everyone else.

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Unknown said...

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