By Molly Burford
Now, let me begin with a few facts and acknowledgements.
I know you mean well. I know that you want me to feel better and that you can see I’m in pain. I know depression is complicated and messy and dark. I know it’s hard to know how to help someone who is in its throes, but there is one thing that is absolutely certain:
Telling me to “choose happiness” or to “focus on the positives” isn’t, and never will be, good advice. In fact, it’s hurtful, invalidating, and downright harmful.
Depression just doesn’t fucking work like that.
You can’t will yourself to produce more serotonin or dopamine. You can’t kick the Prozac or Zoloft by thinking about how the sun is shining and that Beyonce and Jay-Z worked things out after “Lemonade” and now have beautiful twins. You can’t force the demons out of your mind by simply asking them to leave because positivity in moving in.
The thing is depression is an illness. Just the way someone with diabetes can’t tell their pancreas to start secreting insulin, you can’t ask the mind to stop being depressed. Because it can’t, not without treatment.
It’s also important to note that “choose happiness” is shitty advice because depression isn’t sadness. When someone is sad, they’re often told to “cheer up” since happiness is considered sadness’s opposite. That will have to cancel it out, right? Depression should work the same!
(An aside: If you’re feeling sad, let yourself be fucking sad. It’s not a bad thing to be upset or to feel hurt after something bad happens. You can’t choose how you feel.)
But the thing is, while depression can make you feel sad, that’s a side effect and not all that it is.
Depression is also hopelessness. It’s feeling utterly alone and finding it hard to leave your bed or the house. It’s having trouble brushing your teeth or showering. It’s a flood of tears that you can’t seem to stop. Sometimes, it’s no tears at all because you’re so numb and apathetic that nothing seems to matter.
Depression is disrupted sleep. It’s feeling exhausted constantly, even after sleeping for 10 hours straight. It’s eating too much, or too little. It’s strained relationships. It’s being unable to concentrate at work or school. It’s hating every ounce of your being.
It’s all consuming, excruciating, emotional pain.
So, instead of giving a stream of Pinterest board advice, maybe ask someone who is suffering if they’re seeing a therapist. Encourage them to see one if not. Help them make the first phone call to set up an appointment. Go with them to support groups if they’re scared to go.
Ask them if they’ve tried medication, and remind them there’s no shame in needing it. Ask them how they’re doing and let them know you love them no matter what. Let them know what they feel is real and valid and “not all in their head.”
And while, yes, sometimes people with depression can get out and socialize and feel a little better, it’s not always possible. Sometimes, the weight of depression is just too much and this doesn’t make them weak.
And on those days when it is just too much for them, instead of asking them to “focus on the positives,” maybe say:
“I’m sorry you’re feeling so low. I can’t imagine what depression is like, but I can see and hear how badly you’re hurting. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you get the treatment and support you need. It’s going to be okay.”
So, please, for the love of God, Rumi and Sir, ramen, golden retrievers, and shredded cheese, stop telling people with depression to choose happiness. It’s not possible. It’s also contributing to the stigma and why people don’t seek treatment in the first place. After all, if they could choose their way out, why would they ask for help?