By Kit Treadwell
Content Note: depression, self-harm
‘But you don’t look depressed!’ is an objection I get quite a lot. It’s astounding, really, given my policy of being extremely verbal about my mental illness. It’s not exactly something I attempt to hide. Yet persistently, people are astounded. This immediately raises three questions: first, what does ‘depressed’ look like? Are we really so reductive as to consider a certain set of traits, be they physical or intangible, those of a depressed person? Secondly, why am I not identified with that set of traits? Finally – why does that matter?
Well, this blog post is an attempt to loosely answer the question. I say question – singular – partially to be contrary, and partly because most of them really don’t matter. The central issue appears to me to be something I’ve discussed before – our broad compassion for mental illness has far surpassed our understanding of what mental health problems actually entail. I think it’s fair to say that there is an extremely unhelpful public image of depression. Baggy clothing, the black dog, rainy nights – it crosses over significantly with how we image sadness to be (at least in terms of public tropes, anyway). This is fair enough. No one has ever really publicly raised the idea that depressed people can be happy, and indeed it might feel quite a lot like an oxymoron. Yet this isn’t the case at all; depressed people can feel joy just as well as anyone. It is harmful rhetoric to limit depression to specific emotions – it allows people to minimise struggle just because they do not fit a stereotype. Depression treats everyone differently, and we’re often not aware of this.
When I first started suffering from depression, I was sure something was wrong. I didn’t know exactly what, but that didn’t matter – alarm bells were ringing somewhere inside my body. Not really knowing how to address this problem I could sense but not conquer, I turned to the easiest avenue I could: asking people I knew. The response, at the time, did not seem strange to me: “you’re not depressed, you’re just sad”. Well, that seemed fair enough. After all, I – with no experience of previous mental illness – surely couldn’t identify what was wrong. I trusted others more than myself. This is not to say that the people who told me such things were wrong, far from it. It feels much more like a problem of social stigma: depression is a big, scary word. It’s a problem that must be taken seriously. Why would you use it unless absolutely necessary? We’ve created a culture whereby it is seen as wrong, or lesser, to suffer from mental illness, so naturally people feel less comfortable identifying with them. It’s no wonder I would avoid the classification as much as possible.
The problem, of course, was that the advice was wrong. It took me a solid three months to undo the effects of being told that my mental image was invalid; three months in which I could and should have been receiving therapy and medication. Over those three months I continued to self-harm as a coping mechanism, until I became happier. I made well over a hundred cuts, all of which were carefully concealed – and here we reach the second half of the problem. The image I present to the world – jovial, slightly overweight, smiling, and generally full of joy, as well as never, ever stopping talking – hardly fits with public perceptions of mental illness. Nobody could detect any red flags, because by the definition of red flags which society currently has, I was absolutely fine. I was reliant on my own capacity to recognise my own illness, something that is clearly flawed – depression rarely causes people to think they are worth saving.
Eventually, I realised I needed change. There are many who cannot, nor should they have to. Our public perception of depression is ridiculous and should be treated as such. Yet there’s a bigger problem at play here – we shouldn’t have any public perception of mental illness at all. What does it matter how we present? That has no bearing on our actual mental states. This stigma needs to be challenged, and fast. For now, though, all I can say is that there is a path towards healing – and we should never be ashamed to pursue it.