I’m So Depressed (No, You’re Not.)

Last week, a woman who has battled terrible depression for most of her life told me she wished people would stop talking about depression and “thinking they understand what it means.” She said she thought her family and friends believed that “depression” was something temporary, something that you just get over. “Everybody thinks they can talk about depression, but most people don’t understand what depression means.”

Yesterday I was standing in line at the grocery store when I heard a teen in line say to her friend, “I’m so depressed.” I don’t think she meant she was suffering from serious depression, I think she meant she was having a bad day. Or even a bad moment. Hearing the word depression used this way, I truly understood what my depressed patient had been trying to explain. If she were standing in line behind these two teens, I cannot imagine how alone and ashamed she would have felt.

As stigma lifts, our terminology is getting reappropriated. “I’m so depressed,” means something very different (sometimes) than, “I suffer from severe clinical depression.” The public has started to take ownership of its mood, to embrace openness about mental health. The teen in line is being open about her feelings and she is using the word depression the way she hears it used around her. 

When she says, “I’m so depressed,” she may have no frame of reference for the possible levels of severity of depression. She may not realize that overhearing her use the word depressed to describe a bad day can induce hopelessness when overheard by a person with true depression. She may not realize that using “depressed” to mean having a bad day helps equate the term with small and manageable swings in mood, and some depression sufferers can’t manage. She may not understand that speaking this way increases stigma for those suffering with mental illness. 

Psychiatry needs to address this 500-pound gorilla. Talking about mental health is not always a good thing. We have to use our terms correctly. When a person declares, “I’m so depressed,” sometimes it is met with eye rolls and frustration. Stigma increases. This is not because the listener fails to accept the illness we call depression, it may be the opposite, that the listener doesn’t believe the speaker has accurately used the term and may be skeptical of claims of depression from others too. 

And then the stigma reducing efforts of talking about depression backfired. It really only helps to talk about depression (or any mental health problem) when we use our words accurately. 

Posted on January 2, 2017 .