Explaining Depression to Friends and Family

Patient Expert

Very often, folks who experience clinical depression are told that they simply need to have a more positive outlook, count their blessings, or to just take a look and see how good they have it (a home, children, husband, career, money in the bank, good looks, fame, athletic skills, etc.). And holy cow, if I am in the depths of a depression or in a horrible surge of PTSD and one more person tells me if I wanted to feel better all I have to do is just try harder to get over it, I may just begin to scream and scream until they walk away or hang the phone up. (I have yet to do this, but it does clarify my exasperation with this type of commentary...)

What I have personally discovered is a response that will perhaps create a different way of thinking about depression for those who are unclear. While I do understand that ignorance regarding the illness of depression is the issue here, trying to educate folks does not always seem possible when we find ourselves in a devastating depression--trying to defend how we feel when we are struggling is exhaustive.

Recently, I have begun responding a bit differently. When someone shares "ideas" on how to "get over" depression (like the above comments), I simply state the difference between situational depression and clinical depression.

For example, if someone makes a remark about someone famous, something like, "Why should they have depression? They have everything they could ever want--career, money, and a famous beautiful girlfriend. I should be so lucky" My response is: "Clinical depression does not discriminate."

I will often get a confused look. What I then share is this: "Situational depression works from the outside in; clinical depression works from the inside out." Yet another confused look. Then I explain further: "When a certain situation occurs that creates sorrow, pain or grief, the sadness results from an occurrence outside a person's body. In clinical depression, the sadness is created due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. No situation has to occur for sadness, i.e., the depression to occur."

This has granted an opportunity for information to be passed to an individual that may not otherwise be shared. For me, I have found this type of response is a beginning for education to occur. Or, at the very least, creating a pause in that person before such a comment is made again.

It is somewhat amazing that in this day and age, many still do not understand the illness. Personally, I do feel that for some, it is simply due to a lack of experience. If someone has not felt sad, irritable, lethargic or uninterested in the goings on of life for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON, they may have much trouble comprehending such an experience. On the one hand, I think if you have not experienced clinical depression, God bless! On the other hand, just because there may be a lack of personal experience does not allow another to judge the severity (or chemical origins) of depression and believe that a positive attitude will eradicate the illness.

I do understand that an illness that affects mood may be hard to imagine for some. This same attitude is not applied to other illnesses, nor is there such a strong stigma surrounding physical illness. Would this same theory or attitude apply for something like renal failure? Would a person say, "Well, if you just drank more water, the kidneys would have a better opportunity to work properly?" I think not.

Maybe you have tried this approach already. Or perhaps something else has worked more effectively. If so, please share your experience. I do believe we all may benefit from other's ideas on what works to share the reality and truth of this illness.