Depression is Not Sadness

Yesterday I came across the story of Junior Seau, an NFL linebacker who committed suicide on May 2. He shot himself in the chest and was found in his home by his girlfriend. Although little is known of Seau’s mental health leading up to his death, he had apparently suffered from insomnia for the last seven years of his life.

Sportswriter Chris McCosky wrote a beautiful column in the Detroit News about Seau’s death and continuing ignorance about depression and suicide. In the column, McCosky shares his own experiences with depression and suicidal thoughts and laments how difficult it is to explain them to people. He notes, as I’ve noted before, that one common reaction that non-depressed people have is to wonder what the hell we have to be so sad about. He writes, “It’s almost impossible to talk about it to regular people (bosses, spouses, friends). They can’t fathom how somebody in good physical health, with a good job, with kids who love them, who seems relatively normal on the outside, can be terminally unhappy.”

The unbearable frequency at which McCosky and I and probably everyone else who tries to talk about depression get this response could be a testament to the fact the most visible symptom of depression is usually sadness. So that’s the one people latch on to: “What do you have to be so sad about?” “Cheer up!” “You have to decide to be happy!”

Because of the sheer obviousness of our sadness, we’re often forced to try to use it to describe depression. We say that we’re just extremely sad, or unhealthily sad, or a different kind of sad. It’s sadness that never goes away like sadness is supposed to. It’s sadness that’s out of proportion to the troubles that we face in our lives. It’s sadness that we can’t stop thinking about. For those of us with bipolar or cyclothymic disorder, it’s sadness that comes and goes much too quickly.

And it is. But the truth is that sadness actually has very little to do with depression, except that it is one of its many possible symptoms.

Based on the diagnostic criteria for depression, you don’t even need to be chronically sad to be considered “depressed.” Anhedonia, which means losing the ability to feel pleasure from things that you used to enjoy, could be present instead. Under the formal DSM-IV definition, you must have at least five of nine possible symptoms to have major depression–and one of the five must be either depressed mood or anhedonia–and only one of those symptoms involves sadness. (If you so some very basic math, you will notice that this means that two people, both of whom officially have major depression, might only have one symptom in common. Weird, huh?)

So, even if your particular depression does include sadness, it’ll only be one of many other symptoms. The others might be much more painful and salient for you than the sadness is. Some people can’t sleep, others gain weight, some think constantly about death, others can’t concentrate or remember anything. Many lose interest in sex, or food, or both. Almost everyone, it seems, experiences a crushing fatigue in which your limbs feel like stone and no amount of sleep ever helps. Then there are headaches, stomachaches, and so on.

So, depression doesn’t necessarily mean sadness to us. (And, a gentle reminder to non-depressed folks: being sad doesn’t mean you’re “depressed,” either.)

Depression is not sadness; it’s an illness that often, though not always, involves sadness. No amount of happy things will make a depressed person spontaneously recover, and, usually, no amount of sad things will make a well-adjusted person with good mental health suddenly develop depression. (Grief, of course, is another matter.) And sadness, on its own, does not cause suicide.

We need to start talking about mood disorders as disorders, not as emotional states. McCosky writes:

Junior Seau wasn’t sad when he pointed that gun to his chest. He wasn’t being a coward. He wasn’t being selfish. He was sick. I wasn’t sad when I thought about swerving into on-coming traffic on Pontiac Trail some 20 years ago. I was sick.

What he’s saying is that people don’t kill themselves because they’re sad. They kill themselves because they have an illness that, among other things, makes them feel sad. It also makes them feel like their life is worthless, like they’re a burden to others, like death would be easier, and all the other beliefs that lead people down the path to suicide.

There is a tendency, I think, to assume that people are depressed because they are sad. A better way to look at it is that people are sad because they are depressed. That’s why, even if we could “turn that frown upside down!” and “just look on the sunny side!” for your benefit, it would do absolutely no good. The depression would still be there, but in a different form.

Junior Seau did not leave a suicide note, so only God knows what he was thinking when he died. I would guess, though, that he was thinking about much more than just being sad.

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Death to Debbie Downer

Made famous by SNL.

I propose a moratorium on the term “Debbie Downer.”

“But whyyyy?” you might argue. “Those negative people are so annoyinggg!”

Perhaps. But I think we need to stop using that phrase, for several reasons.

The first thing I think of when I hear the phrase “Debbie Downer” in one of the contexts it’s most commonly used (i.e. “Oh, don’t mind him, he’s just a Debbie Downer”; “Why are you being such a Debbie Downer?”; etc.), is that it’s a reflection of our culture’s dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have a smile plastered all over their face at all times.

After all, isn’t that such a dismissive thing to say? When one calls someone a Debbie Downer, they’re implying that this person’s thoughts and opinions aren’t to be taken seriously. It means that rather than taking the time to figure out why someone’s saying all these negative things, they’re just going to write them off with a convenient alliterative term.

Second–and if you read this blog regularly, I’m sure you know where this is going–“Debbie Downer” is often used as a disparaging term that basically means “person with a mental illness.” In that context, it’s not only insulting, but inaccurate. Depression and related disorders don’t simply make people “negative.” They make them hopeless, joyless, and, at times, suicidal. You don’t really know if the frustrating person making pessimistic comments all the time is actually a pessimist, or actually struggling with a debilitating illness. So why assume?

~~~

“But wait!” you might say. “How dare you tell me how to talk? Free speech!”

Absolutely. Unlike certain more Leftist people, I would never argue that one should “ban” words just because they offend people. But look at it this way–if your friend or family member is being negative and you call them a “Debbie Downer,” all you’re doing is shutting them down and making them feel like you don’t really care about how they feel. Is this really what you want them to think? No? Then choose your words more carefully.

As for how I think one should respond to overly negative people, it’s not the way we’re used to doing it. Many people respond by trying to argue with or counteract the negative statements with positive ones, or sarcastically asking “Don’t you have anything nice to say?”, or snapping something like, “Stop complaining.”

(Our culture places a huge stigma on anyone who expresses anything even closely resembling a complaint. What else would explain the proliferation of special purple bracelets given out by various groups that members are required to wear until they have stopped “complaining”? My high school band used them. Rather than feeling free and happy in all this new-found positivity, I felt shut up and silenced, like my opinions–negative or otherwise–don’t matter.)

You’ve by now probably gathered that I think all of this is not only an exercise in futility, but actually quite damaging to relationships. Unsurprisingly, people don’t like to feel belittled and rejected.

Next time, try this simple question: “What makes you say that?”

You may be surprised at the response you receive.

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The last point I wanted to make regarding this phrase is that it reveals something very interesting about our culture. We view others’ negative emotions as some sort of personal insult or attack, and we respond accordingly. Rather than either addressing the person’s issues or ignoring them, we instead allow them to bring us down–hence the term “Debbie Downer.” The response that many a depressive (or simply a sad person) has encountered is, “Why do you have to ruin my mood all the time? Why do you have to bring everyone down all the time?”

My response to that is, why are you letting someone else’s problems ruin your mood?

One might argue that it’s “impossible” to be in a good mood if someone around you is not. This is pure bullshit. In fact, I’m going to propose something radical–what if it’s entirely possible to be in a good mood despite the presence of “Debbie Downers?”

I believe that unless you yourself have a psychological problem that keeps you from being in control of your own emotions, nothing can keep you from being in a good mood if you want to be. So perhaps we should stop blaming our own bad moods on other people and acknowledge that we have control over them instead.

The great irony here is that the people bitching and moaning about “Debbie Downers” are usually those very same people who tell those of us with mental illnesses that we just have to “look on the bright side” and “stop letting the little things bring you down” and all those tropes. Perhaps they should take their own advice.

A sad person isn’t a personal insult to you, nor an insurmountable barrier to your own happiness. Next time you encounter one, try a little compassion instead of sarcastically putting them down with a cliched phrase.