Psychology has come a long way in terms of understanding why people can think themselves into a depression or be depressed due to biological realities. Mental and medical health professionals now know that the brain disorder often damages physical health, too. They also know which therapies, behaviors and skills can bring people out of depression. Public education efforts have clued in wider society to the facts of these psychological matters, but it has not ended the human tendency to regard depression as taboo.
Despite all the interventions to make depression less scary to the common person, it’s still common to hear “Don’t tell me what’s going wrong in your life, I have my own problems!” The statement describes a mindset that affects depressed people and their critics for the worse. It limits social interactions with depressed people to an exclusionary “Stay Away” degree, almost guaranteeing their further deterioration and ours. The good news is that it is possible to minimize, even to end, the problem. Let’s look at the causes of and potential cures for the taboo regarding depression.
Fire and Brimstone
Clergy tend to goad congregants and wider society into regarding unhappiness as a sin, a failure of character and an insult to The Creator. Centuries ago, before the study of psychology was a concept and when compassion was too often reserved for oneself, depressed people were regarded as dispensable, tossed into filthy, dangerous asylums or otherwise neglected until they died.
The ugly history has improved over time. However, the human preference for an easy, unchallenged life complicates matters for atheists and religious people alike. We can rethink the paradigm, though: The mind holds negative thoughts for constructive reasons. We can master our responses to negativity for the better.
Self-Protection Efforts Can Backfire
Human memory has its protective purposes. We learn from personal and vicarious experiences, absorbing valuable lessons, especially painful ones, for self-preservation purposes. But if we don’t merely absorb life lessons and instead obsess over them, the undue focus on negative thoughts and memories prevents us from being able to go forward! We might dismiss unhappy people to avoid thinking about them and perhaps to avoid facing our own unresolved difficulties. Occasionally we just want to avoid the awkwardness of not knowing how to behave or what to say to depressed individuals. Think back to those members of the clergy who keep insisting that we develop finer character traits. They don’t want us to limit our chances for inner growth, for gaining insight and social graces. Neither do upbeat mental health professionals.
Consider also that selfishness deserves the poor reputation it has earned. It nurtures a cruelty that disrupts many social interactions. Here’s how it works, to some degree: We avoid more negativity by recoiling from situations, persons and objects which remind us of how life has misfired in the past and might do so again. As we listen to the comments of depressed people who seem to lack any redeeming value to us – or any way out of their misery – we assign a sense of worthlessness to them, avoiding such persons at all costs. We resent them for not adding to our joy in life, and for lowering it. That’s fine if the recoil serves a constructive purpose such as helping us to remain functional. It’s not fine when innocent sufferers of depression are unjustly harmed by “Don’t bother me” prejudice or we are simply being mean. It’s not merely rude, it’s counter-productive. By shunning depressed people, we inflict more pain on already suffering individuals. We thus increase our insensitivity to them and to anyone who needs compassion.
Permitting ourselves to ostracize despondent people worsens our chances, and those of despondent people, for pleasant social opportunities and even for recoveries from depression. The nastiness can spill over into other areas, too.
Since taboos are as lousy as they’re cracked up to be, let’s look at depression and depressed people in a less negative, even in a positive, framework.
The key to not being incapacitated by negative memories, is to focus on what goes right in our lives, to count our blessings and to rely on our various skills to serve us well. Thinking that way can improve the outlook of depressed and non-depressed people. The evidence, however, seems to indicate that we focus on negative memories so much that our mindset prevents us from developing new skills, or from using existing skills. We don’t delve into benign new opportunities nor improve our outlooks on life. That’s why persistent negativity is referred to as “counter-productive behavior.” The good news, though, is that being locked into negativity is not a life sentence. Prisoners hold the keys to the doors of their emotionally negative cells.
Consider fundamental realities. People enduring depression might need a professional or casual confidante’s help to move past misery. They might need medication, too. Medical and mental health professionals recognize the existence of treatment-resistant depression, let alone the public. Permit depressed people to use the tools they need to overcome their depressive states. You can even appreciate and/or praise them for the sensible behavior. Practice compassion on people struggling to find some way out of their despondency. Increased kindness can improve your character and self-respect while promoting mental health for the other person.
Think of all the formerly depressed public figures who’ve publicly admitted their human fallibilities and the joy they experienced in overcoming them. Consider the people in your life who’ve done the same thing. Weigh that against the harm that ostracism causes when depressed people are denied social and medical/mental health opportunities to improve their lives.
Education matters. The limitations on both sides of the depressive state can be overcome with factual information that allows observers to experience increased insight into and compassion for depressed people. Factual information can also help members of the public to learn skills for finessing encounters with a depressed person. They have their work to do and we have ours. Neither obviates the other.
Optimism is a skill. It begins naturally in babies who find the world fascinating and full of interesting opportunities. That’s why they don’t regress after falling down when they practice their walking, talking and eating skills. They delight in mastering their surroundings and muscles despite mistakes. But as life continues and inner or outer pain – especially negative consequences with nasty people –accrues, a person is faced with the lifelong task of developing optimism versus pessimism. That’s when the intentional focus on what goes right in life pays big bonuses with an improved point of view and forays into new and better opportunities in life.
There are other benefits to losing the taboo associated with depression. Minimizing and ultimately avoiding depression can prevent early death in people with heart problems. Welcoming friends and relatives back in to your lives can increase the quality of life for everyone involved. Do your best by learning more about depression and how to deal with it effectively.