It can be overwhelming. Most days will leave you feeling high and dry, and sometimes you’ll feel like succumbing to the hardest thing you’ve ever experienced. No one ever wants to talk about it in real life and, if they must, they do so with lowered gazes and hushed voices, as if afraid to rouse the dormant elephant in the room.
But, in the wake of Robin Williams’ passing, it seems that depression is the new buzzword that’s on everyone’s lips. Suddenly, everyone has an opinion of some sort and everyone wants in on this conversation. Now, the heightened media attention surrounding the disease frequently left out of the agenda may not necessarily be a bad thing if it leads to greater awareness on the issue. What seems more worrisome, however, is seeing it being shoved into the limelight without proper efforts at education and, crucially, without making sure that the audience it is facing in all its naked glory understands.
Reading through some vitriolic comments online and seeing labels such as “selfish” and “weak” slapped senselessly on those who suffer with this disease hits close to home. I grew up in a conservative society where the mere thought of mental illness was taboo and I can only imagine how crippling it feels to have to suppress your true feelings for fear of being viewed as an aberration. It is well-known, though not on official record, that seeking psychiatric help from our Institute of Mental Health (colloquially known as “Woodbridge,” spawning a whole host of unsavoury jokes) will earn you a mark on your record for life, one that you must declare when filling in forms and seeking employment, and one that many describe as a noose around one’s neck killing off any hope of a future. While the voices advocating a better support system for sufferers of mental illness has grown stronger in recent years, it is undeniable that public perception in my home society is still very much against acknowledging the existence of something that falls short of our desired ideal of perfection. Ironic and sad, considering how depression is faced by over 121 million people worldwide, making it one of the most common mental health problems experienced. Chances are that someone you know personally could very well be suffering in silence.
On the other end of the spectrum, the virtual world seems to be turning depression into what seems like a badge of honor to wear with pride. Typing the word “depressed” into Tumblr’s search box throws up tags like “depressing quotes” and “depressing thoughts,” leading to blogs with images in monochrome and cryptic lines not unlike that of the image above. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that the Tumblr community can serve as a source of comfort for those who would rather seek solace in the anonymity of the internet. I’ve also seen Tumblr being used as a positive force to raise awareness, such as posts bearing the numbers of local suicide helplines and users in the process of recovery themselves offering advice to their “followers,” even urging them to seek (professional) help.
However, I feel that this perpetuates a phenomenon of taking negative feelings and passing them off under the generic banner of “depression.” Not only is this dangerous, it can also arguably be seen as irresponsible. In the words of Dr. Mark Reinecke, “What you can get sometimes is a reverberating ‘echo chamber’ of girls who are sharing these experiences and these thoughts and it potentiates the negative feelings, the depression.” In other words, the very same sense of community that Tumblr provides can actually prove to be a negative feedback mechanism of sorts. Indeed, the line between feelings of negativity and genuine depression has become increasingly blurred, facilitated somewhat by the increased availability of generic checklists of the symptoms of depression online, leading to a greater propensity for self-diagnosis. All the more, then, comes the need for education in order to ensure the right message is being sent to the people most vulnerable to misinformation.
Ultimately, the lesson to be learned here is that of understanding, to strike that balance between total ignorance and total misrepresentation. The world may have lost a beacon of light and laughter, but I hope Williams’ passing sheds a little more light on the darkness that is depression. I don’t think anyone except sufferers themselves can fully know the true depths of the emotions they experience – what we catch is but a mere glimpse of the whole – but sometimes, just being willing to take that first step is enough. The battle has only just begun.
Bine, Anne-Sophie. “Social Media Is Redefining ‘Depression'” Social Media Is Redefining ‘Depression’ – The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Aug. 2014.