What’s in a Word?

I don’t know if this is going to be coherent at all. I don’t even know where I’m going with this post as I write it. So, if it’s meandering but ultimately leads nowhere, then forgive me, but so be it.


It’s just a word. A word that is bandied around regularly, and often with little understanding of what it means. People use the word to describe themselves when they’re having a bad day, or even a run of bad days. People hear the word and form opinions in their mind as to what it means, often wrongly. People who have been depressed or who have been close to someone who has been depressed are likely to understand a lot more about it.

It’s not something I had given a lot of thought to, until today when I saw some discussions around the sad death of Gary Speed. I have read people commenting that they thought he was selfish to take his own life, since he clearly did not think about those he left behind. Of course, we have no idea what he thought about, but clearly someone desperate enough to take their life in the way that he did is not in a place where they are able to think rationally about what their death will do to their loved ones.

I have no idea about his state of mind, or his mental health, so I don’t want this post to be about him, but rather about what it means to be depressed. When you have been diagnosed with depression, it is not a case that a doctor has said you’re having a bit of a rough time of it and you should snap out of it. It’s not, as I have seen suggested this evening, something you can choose to talk yourself out of. Depression is, in part, a chemical imbalance in the brain, and no amount of positive thinking alters this. There are lots of ways to treat depression of course, and not all of them involve chemicals, but “snap out of it”, “get a grip”, “stop being selfish” are not among them.

People do not choose to be depressed. I’m not talking about goth-esque glumness, I’m talking about clinical depression. The kind of depression where even when you are making good progress towards recovery, you can have an unexpected and unexplained bad day which prevents you from getting out of bed, or moving off the sofa, so heavy is the black cloud hanging over your head. And people with this kind of depression are often not aware that they are suffering from it until things get so bad that they completely stop functioning. It is in this frame of mind that decisions to take one’s own life are made. This is not a state of mind capable of considering the consequences of those left behind. And for this reason, it is not appropriate to talk of selfish behaviour; to be selfish, you’d have to consider the consequences, weigh them up, realise how awful it would be for your loved ones and think “fuck it”. This is not a thought process that happens in the depths of clinical depression, because in those depths, it becomes impossible to see how anyone else is affected by your actions.

It’s time people stopped thinking of depression as a word to tossed about when someone is a bit fed up, and realise that it is a medical condition, a mental illness. I’ve seen this denied tonight too. So let me say it, loud and clear. DEPRESSION IS A MENTAL ILLNESS. People who have depression are ill. They may be fully functioning (although this is hard work, and when it happens before treatment, inevitably leads to a deeper depression), they may be good at hiding it, or it may be very obvious that they don’t cope with day-to-day life in the same way you do. It’s because they’re ill, see?

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3 comments on “What’s in a Word?

  1. Hi Mahala – Great post, I couldn’t read and run. I had a period of clinical depression in my early 30’s – I was absolutely at the lowest ebb and would burst into tears on the tube in the rush hour with no provokation whatsoever – I’m sure people thought I was mad…. I wasn’t, I was depressed. After a number of drugs did all sorts of horrible things to me, Prozac eventually sorted me out. I went back to university and have never been depressed again. Whilst I totally agree that depression is an illness, I can’t comment on whether it’s possible to think your way out of it, because I was never helped in that way – drugs were the first port of call. I can categorically tell you however, that I have thought my way out of being depressed since and that various mind techniques (in particular NLP) are wholly responsible for me not having gotten depressed since having kids. I think having a knowledge of what being depressed is like has also helped me not become depressed again and I’m a firm believer that more research should be done in this field to help in the understanding of how the mind works and how recurring depression might be prevented….. but since there’s no drugs in it, the research is unlikely to ever be done.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I agree that there are some good, non-drug based treatments out there, and also that there’s never likely to be a large scale study into their effectiveness, since the drugs companies don’t stand to make any money out of alternative treatments. I’d be interested in knowing more about how NLP can help. I’m just about to embark on a year’s CBT and am interested to see how it helps.

      These are very different to suggestions which I’ve seen tonight which included “take responsibility for yourself and have respect for those around you” suggesting that if one becomes depressed, it is disrespectful – I’ve even seen it suggested that there’s no way you could hit rock bottom without you or those surorunding you knowing you were depressed – even though this is exactly what many people go through.

  2. Brilliant post. Depression is one of those things that, unless you’ve had some direct involvement, it can be difficult to imagine or appreciate what it is really like. And you’re so right – no amount of advice about “snapping out of it” or being mentally strong, or gritting your teeth and getting on with things is going to make any positive impact. If anything, it will only serve to confirm underlying convictions of worthlessness and failure.
    No-one chooses to be depressed.
    I wrote a post on a similar theme when a friend back in England took his own life a few months ago…
    http://wp.me/p1J9Lk-9o I’ll understand if you remove the link, it’s not my intention to self-promote.

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