Depression is not about ‘gloominess’ – it’s about conflict

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The other day I was reading some interesting NHS guides about mental health when I came across a description of what causes depression which made me cross:

Some people may be more likely to “look on the gloomy side” of life in general, and this may make them more likely to develop a depression.

If there’s anything which really bugs me about what people believe about depression, it’s this idea that depression is a refuge of the chronically miserable, that it only happens to those who can’t ‘look on the bright side’. It doesn’t make any sense to me for various reasons and I don’t think it’s a positive way to help people to get better.

The way I see it, depression happens when two ideas conflict with each other. We all have certain beliefs about ourselves and our lives which are very deeply ingrained. When something happens to challenge those beliefs, we get scared because we’ve discovered that things are not as we thought they were. In the face of challenges to the very centre of who we are, we can feel that we’re falling apart. In order to combat this very frightening prospect, we (unconsciously) tell ourselves stories which remove the conflict from the situation. This bad thing happened because I am a bad person. But of course you have to have some faith in yourself to keep on eating, breathing, walking around and talking to other people, whether you realise it or not. So the good faith is battling with the bad thoughts and this is what leads to depression. Without the conflict between these two states, depression cannot exist. If you were truly resigned to believing you are a bad person, you’d either have no instinct to keep yourself alive (the breathing, eating and walking around) or you’d be in a state where you didn’t mind being seen as ‘bad’. Plenty of people are self-confessed ‘bastards’ and are actually having a pretty good time of it.

Depression doesn’t happen because of pessimism or gloominess. It happens when we’re struggling with ideas that don’t appear to make any sense. Much of this struggle happens away from our everyday thoughts so it’s difficult to get much of a grip on it, but it’s a struggle all the same. 

There are plenty of people who enjoy complaining about things. It doesn’t cause them any distress or upset, they do it because they quite like it. It can help us to feel in control when we’re able to put the world to rights over a pint or have a bit of a moan at a bus stop. People who like to complain a lot might appear to be frustrated or haggard or grumpy but they’re not depressed. It’s entirely possible to be pessimistic often and never suffer depression. Have a read of a comment thread sometime. It’s unlikely that everyone expressing misanthropic or gloomy views is also living with depression.

It can be quite damaging to keep equating pessimism with depression. When you’re depressed, your world view is skewed. You have a feeling that something isn’t right but you can’t quite place it. You feel desperately unhappy and unable to do anything about it. At that time, the last thing you need is people forming opinions about your character rather than what’s happening to you. Depression is not an intrinsic personality trait. It’s grossly unfair to tell someone that they’re depressed because they’re just that sort of person. Be it brain chemistry, upbringing or just bad luck, no one’s 100% clear on what causes the many different experiences of depression. It makes no more sense to say that depression only happens to those who are just prone to misery than it does to believe in astrology. This can happen to anyone.

And maybe that’s what people are afraid of. When people palm off depression as an affliction of those who suffer a perpetual, cartoonish, Eeyore-style gloom, what they’re really saying is, ‘This will never happen to me. Or, if it does, I’ll deal with it much better than those moaning bastards.’ It’s creating a gap to minimise the impact of what other people deal with. If we can kid ourselves that bad things will never happen to us because we’re just not that sort of person, then the world becomes a much safer place. It’s not only depression which inspires people to behave this way. ‘If only they’d been more careful’ is a popular way to deal with stories of everything from car accidents to sexual assault. We don’t like to imagine bad things happening to us, so we pretend they couldn’t. The trouble is we then miss the crucial facts which can help us to create a better state of affairs for those who are affected.

This attitude can also mean that people who have been branded with statements about who they are (‘You are X sort of person’) have little to no motivation to try and be different. What’s the point when you’re essentially battling with your own personality? Might as well get used to it, things will never change and even if they do, they’ll change straight back again. I wish someone had told me sooner that I didn’t have ‘depression’ stamped through my DNA like a word through a stick of rock. It could have saved me a lot of time.

What I’ve learned from being affiliated with various mental health charities over the past few years is that people who live with depression are as diverse in terms of personality as healthy people. It isn’t fair to pigeonhole us as pessimistic or resigned to a lifetime of mope.

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One thought on “Depression is not about ‘gloominess’ – it’s about conflict

  1. On a few occasions I’ve discussed this with other people with depression, and often we come to the same conclusion – that that kind of relentless negativity is a luxury that people with depression often can’t afford. If I found things to get angry about all the time I don’t know how I’d keep going, cause most of the time it’s out of my hands – there’s so much in this world that makes me feel shit I *have* to try and have a positive outlook. And it’s really offensive to suggest it’s just a personality trait like laziness.

    And yes of course, you can’t apply a trait like that to everyone suffering from clinical depression, anymore than you can say they’re all environmentally concerned or their favourite animals are rabbits.

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