(Hint: It’s not depression. It’s you.)
The World Health Organisation, for this year’s World Health Day, not only chose to focus on depression, but also went on to theme it, “Let’s Talk.”
That is not a good thing.
I mean, think about it. If you’re going to devote a World Health Day to a single issue and your focus of choice for the issue is as basic as, “We need to talk about this more,” there’s a major communication problem.
Which is hardly what you’d expect for a condition faced by one in ten people (and up to one in five in areas experiencing conflict and other emergency situations, which is a good number of places right now). And especially when you consider that depression’s in the top 3 most burdensome diseases worldwide, and affects people of every age and socioeconomic status.
So let’s talk about why people don’t talk about depression?
Pause right there.
Did you notice my choice of words? I didn’t say, “why people don’t talk about their depression.”
If you’re like most people, that’s very likely how you read that sentence in your head. Still, since the question has come up now…
Why don’t people talk about their depression?
Since a significant portion of my professional life has been devoted to getting people to talk about their mental health — with depression sitting pretty atop that list — I think I’m in a position to offer an answer. Here it is:
People don’t talk about their depression because people don’t talk about depression, period. If someone is depressed and they’re not talking to you about it, chances are it’s probably because you are not talking about it.
After all, most people generally don’t talk about what other people don’t talk about, do you? (Except comedians, that is, and not even are known for talking about their own depression.)
The problem is, a problem you can’t talk about is really two problems.
But let’s establish this more clearly, shall we? How might you be making it difficult for people to be open about their being depressed?
To better understand this, let’s look at some other subjects.
One is a subject we generally talk about: birth. It’s an exciting topic. Even in Nigeria, where people can get superstitious about telling everyone they’re expecting, they’re still excited and eager to tell close friends and family.
But there are two other related subjects we’re less open about: infertility, estimated to affect up to 1 in 4 couples and miscarriages which affect (depending who you ask) up to 1 in 5 women confirmed pregnant!
Why do we talk about births, but not about the miscarriages and infertility that are almost as common? It’d be easy to answer that it’s just harder to talk about things generally considered negative—nobody wants to be the gloomy wet blanket. But if you talk to people who’ve actually experienced miscarriages and infertility, you’ll find it goes deeper than that. The real reason is not singular, but twofold: guilt and shame.
People who have experienced infertility or miscarriages often struggle with a sense of guilt, the feeling that something they did (or didn’t do) has left them unable to have children or carry them to term. And they struggle with the same sense of shame and inadequacy you get when you’re the only one who fails an exam everyone else passed.
Even worse, though, both these feelings are rooted in misconceptions. The majority of infertility and miscarriages have nothing to do with what anyone did. And from the figures I already gave, it’s clear that this is an “exam” most actually struggle with. Just like with exams, though, it’s easy to feel stupid when it’s just you who failed, but less so when many others fail: you’re not happy they failed, you feel better because that’s evidence that it’s probably not you, it’s the exam that’s tough.
Anyone can fail an exam.
Anyone can have a miscarriage, or experience infertility.
And anyone can be depressed.
But as long as we talk about depression like it’s uncommon, as long as we remain surprised by it, as long as we think of it as a problem only for the weak… we make it harder for those living with depression to open up.
But what can you do to help?
I’m not talking about professional help here. There’s a time and place for that, but you won’t even know if you don’t hear from the people around you to begin with. And even for people already getting therapy, there’s still a lot of good from having someone to just talk to.
Still want to know how you can help?
Here’s two words for you: Ask. Listen.
That’s really all it comes down to.
Don’t wait for people to tell you they’re depressed: ask them if they are. Don’t wait for people to tell you they’re on the verge of giving up: make the first move.
By doing that, you signal to them that it’s okay to talk.
And then when they start talking, with all due respect, please shut up and listen.