There are two main arguments surrounding the perception and discussion of anxiety, depression, and other mental ilnesses:
The first argues against the negative stigmatization of mental illness. That those who suffer from depression are wrongfully seen as weak or broken. That antidepressants, meditation, and therapy aren’t hoaxes, and you can’t just suck it up and get better. Just read this Thought Catalog article on antidepressants, or watch Andrew Solomon’s TED talk about anxiety and depression.
The second argues that the romanticization of depression by society is just as bad. That we perversely worship anyone from tortured poets to ’emo’ boy-bands – not only their artistic output, but their afflictions (real or invented) as well. That our culture has created the persona of a damaged individual who is somehow made greater by their suffering. Just read this Thought Catalog article on romanticizing mental illness.
Read this article from The Atlantic, written by a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, that seems to straddle both sides of the fence. “I would try to resist whatever the latest drug was, feeling that this resistance was somehow noble or moral, that reliance on medication evinced weakness of character, that my anxiety was an integral and worthwhile component of who I am, and that there was redemption in suffering—until, inevitably, my anxiety would become so acute that I would be willing to try anything, including the new medication.”
So what’s the real problem? Are we glorifying or dismissing mental illness?
I used to firmly believe that while some extreme cases of anxiety and depression (ie. those resulting from bipolar disorder, PTSD, post-partum depression) required professional attention and/or medication to resolve, most cases would resolve themselves with some patience and the usual support of friends and family. I especially couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to take medication that could change the way a person thought and behaved.
These perspective were cultivated from many different sources. My parents come from a traditional and conservative culture where people hid or dismissed their problems out of pride or fear of being seen as weak. I grew up reading articles about how the ADHD epidemic was born of corporate greed and pharmaceutical companies’ desire to sell questionably effective medication that they could market as a quick fix. As a teen, I judged the moody, emo boy-band music that my peers listened to to be fake. For most of my life, I didn’t know anyone who suffered from depression or mental illness.
But in the past few years, that has changed, as have my views on depression and mental illness. For the last decade, my father has suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Especially in the last few years, decay of motor function caused by Parkinson’s has claimed his physical well-being and his livelihood. Understandably, due to both his circumstances and his disease (depression is a symptom of Parkinson’s), he developed depression.
His struggle with depression has been difficult for me to watch, and each member of our family has handled it differently. My mother became more stern with him, forcefully ushering him through the routine of each day. My brother would try to reason with him, getting him to talk about how he felt and what he wanted. I would sometimes try to distract him with scientific discussion or gossip about Cornell’s chemistry department (where I studied and where he was formerly employed). Between the antidepressants, therapy, and recently developed fervor for Bible study, he would have some good days, some bad days, and a few really bad days. And especially on those worst days, we knew that no matter how hard it was for us as his family, it was unimaginably more difficult for him. We tried hard to understand, but could never truly be in his shoes. We were willing to do anything to help, but found no quick fix, no miracle cure.
In addition to my father’s illness, I have seen others close to me suffer from varying degrees on anxiety or depression, sometimes enough to manifest as physical illness or otherwise lowering quality of life. I myself have had days, between worrying about my family and juggling the day-to-day stresses of life, when I feel like I’m barely holding myself together. Statistics may disagree on the exact numbers, but will all tell you that the majority of Americans will suffer from anxiety or depression at some point in their lives, whether short- or long-term, and that for a high proportion of those people, it will be severe enough to seek professional attention.
I think that it’s difficult to find the ‘right’ way to think about depression and mental illness, especially without having witnessed or experienced them yourself. However, as with trying to understand any struggle, the compassionate approach is to listen and learn without judgement, understanding that each person has different needs and different goals for recovery. It can require a lot of courage to reach out and ask for help, or even just for understanding. And that while as an outsider, you may not comprehend precisely how they feel, it never hurts to extend sympathy and patience.