Michael Bader: Bringing depression out of the closet
November 2, 2016
In his recent autobiography, Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen admits to a lifelong struggle with depression and reveals that his suffering led him to seek psychotherapy and anti-depressant medication. Springsteen is the most recent, but hardly the first, celebrity to admit to being afflicted with mental illness. While such reports are often sensationalized, they serve the important function of normalizing mental anguish and, as a result, making it permissible for people to come out from hiding and admit to having psychological problems.
But why do people need permission to begin with? Unfortunately, even in our age of Prozac and Dr. Phil, mental illness — especially depression — is still regarded as a personal weakness and is therefore pushed into the closet where its victims are made to suffer in shameful silence. And, yet, almost 20 percent of Americans are believed to suffer from some form of mental illness (depression and anxiety being the most common diagnoses). And because of the stigma attached to such illnesses, this statistic is likely to be an underestimate. No one's genetic or familial backgrounds are devoid of problems, and so a life completely free of melancholy is likely impossible.
As a culture, we value self-reliance and independence, and, seen through the prism of these values, depression and anxiety disorders seem pathetic, weak, and self-indulgent. We are a "shape up," or "snap out of it," society, even though many of us are actually vulnerable and dependent on other people, medications, and public institutions. Tragically, depression is viewed too often as a personal failure. This is true for both men and women, but might be more salient for men who learn growing up that expressing emotional distress is considered feminine.
Experts tell us that the earliest accounts of depression can be found in ancient Mesopotamian texts from the second millennium B.C. In Western cultures, as religion grew in power and influence, depression came to be seen as a mark of God's disfavor. During the Spanish Inquisition, you could even get thrown in prison or executed for being severely depressed! Today, you are merely viewed as a burden.
The problem with being seen as burdensome is that it feeds into the heart of depression, which is isolation and loneliness. The depressed person already feels him or herself to be a burden to others. The fact that it is often difficult to be around someone who is depressed too often mirrors the depressed person's self-hatred.
Depression is a common human experience. Relief can be found in psychotherapy and psychopharmacology. But depression must first be recognized and accepted as a painful illness and not a moral failing. Rather than shame people who are suffering from it, we need to love them in better ways. Here is how Andrew Solomon, author of the brilliant book about depression, Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, puts it: "Don't leave depressed people alone. Alone is where the condition escalates. …Sometimes a depressed person can't manage much interaction and you need to sit by his bed. Sometimes, she can't bear to have you in the room, and you have to go sit outside the door. But don't ever go away any farther than that. The cornerstone of resilience is the knowledge that you are loved, and that knowledge slips away from depressed people when there is any possibility of doubt."
Even if we don't have to literally sit by someone's bed when they are suffering, Solomon's suggestion is a good one. Depressed people need help. They need love and support. They need to know that they are part of the human community, not shameful outcasts from it. If Bruce Springsteen can admit to his battle with severe depression, the rest of us can as well.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.