(Disclaimer: I would like to preemptively apologize for some of the vitriol that follows. I couldn’t help it.)
Depression is a medical illness like any other. The difference between depressed people and not-depressed people has to do with a deleterious shift in brain chemistry or physiology. The neurons might be firing at different rates or in different ways, or there might be an overproduction of hormones that cause fear and sadness and a decrease in hormones that make you feel good and at ease. Sadly, though, many people who don’t understand mental illness believe that—unlike, say, a bacterial infection—depression is something that can easily be controlled, prevented, or denied if you just have the “right” attitude.
For some reason, these misguided notions about mental illness often lead to people strangely assuming they have some unique understanding of what the “real” problems are and how best to treat them. I have come across quite a number of misinformed, well-wishers—with absolutely no medical background whatsoever—who feel compelled to bestow their unsolicited wisdom upon me. I guess because I am lucky enough to have depression, on several different occasions, various people I barely know have told me to take up an interesting hobby, smoke pot, go and watch the sun rise, get a grip, try using psychedelic drugs, or just put a smile on my face. I realize that people offer me these instructions ostensibly because they want to help. These trite suggestions, though, do not feel at all helpful; they feel invasive and disrespectful.
Despite my experience with these sorts of directives, I am still always stunned by the arrogance and presumptuousness of anyone who thinks they have better insight into an illness that has confounded some of the brightest people in the world. My only explanation for the audacity of the I-know-best-people is either they don’t really believe depression is an illness or they don’t realize that the complexity of the problem cannot be solved by laypeople with superficial bandaids or snake oil remedies.
I don’t have a problem with people having different points of view or varying opinions on mental health issues. But if you discover that someone you know is mentally ill, you should not see that as an invitation to force your opinions on them. In case it wasn’t clear before, let me just say that people with depression do not need you to pass judgement or dole out advice. Furthermore, before you decide to play doctor, you might want to ask your intended specimen, if she actually wants to be your guinea pig. Otherwise, if someone wants medical advice, she can go to see a medical professional.
To equal things out a little, I would like to offer my own personal, albeit uninvited, “medical” warning to people who may be contemplating their doctor-playing opportunities. When mere acquaintances try to pass off their unwanted, naive ideas as legitimate approaches to treating my depression, I often contemplate returning the favor of “generously reaching out.” To date, I have been able to suppress my impulse to strangle these people, but I make no promises about future incidents. Of course, other people may feel differently. Even so, seeing as how I am fairly averse to violence in most circumstances, I would hate to think what a more aggressive person might do.
We don’t expect hemophiliacs to just talk themselves into producing the necessary protein so that their blood will coagulate at the right times. We wouldn’t dream of questioning the validity of their illness, either. And hopefully, no one would suggest that a hemophiliac, who was hemorrhaging, should just smile and quickly look for a joint to light up while shouting “Clot blood! Clot!”. Presumably, you wouldn’t want to risk a hemophiliac’s life with this sort of unfounded—even if well-meaning—pseudo-medical advice.
In the future, if you are considering pushing your inexperienced notions onto someone who has not asked for your help, perhaps you could picture the hemophiliac bleeding to death while you preach about groovy drugs and “positive attitude” interventions. Admittedly, depression is not entirely analogous to hemophilia, but it can be just as fatal and dangerous. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. (Hemophilia isn’t even in the same ballpark.)
So, to the people out there evaluating the validity of my depression and to the people considering the “right” approach to treating this illness, please do not assume that you somehow know better or understand more than the vast community of scientists, psychiatrists, therapists, neurologists, and healthcare professionals who have actually studied and worked with mental health patients for years. That kind of thinking could seem a little delusional. And if you’re not careful, people might start to think that you are the crazy one.