“He just stays up in his room watching Netflix. Is that depression?”


I am asked this question (or some variation on the same theme) a half dozen times in a typical week.

“He just stays up in his room watching Netflix. Is that depression?”

The object of the question is usually a young adult, often one who is home for the summer or home indefinitely and trying to put together a plan for an uncertain future. The adult child upstairs needs to find a job, or make a decision about going back to school, or otherwise find direction to go forward. But instead, he sits upstairs staring at a screen for hours on end.

While depressed people certainly could hide upstairs with a laptop, not all vegging out in front of a bingeable TV series is depression.

People hide in their rooms and numb out with TV for other reasons:

  • Just relaxing

  • Needing more alone time, or time away from family

  • Avoiding responsibilities or unpleasant activities

  • Feeling lost, restless, or uncertain

  • As a tool for coping (albeit not always a healthy tool)

But none of the reasons on this list are necessarily depression, or any illness for that matter. Even when your loved one uses a questionable coping skill, that doesn’t signify the presence of a mental health condition. Sometimes people don’t face their problems; they hide in their room and stare at a screen instead.

Questions like, “Is this depression?” sometimes lead to excessive labeling and dangerous overtreatment. While families and friends are trying to understand and help a non-functional or distressed loved-one, we are at times too quick to jump to common illnesses like depression when we see someone who isn’t functioning.

Being lost isn’t depression, although it can be related. Wasting time in mindless activities is not depression (or else we are all depressed in the age of binge watching TV series).

More important, treating unhealthy coping as if it is depression won’t help. Medications (the most common treatment for depression) don't improve coping skills. Communication, raising expectations, and holding him accountable are steps to take before visiting a doctor and discussing prescription medication. Sometimes starting with counseling or psychotherapy, instead of prescription medication, is the best path to address problems with coping skills.

If your loved one isn't coping in healthy ways, try gentle confrontation, ask him to spend less time alone and more time with the family. Tell him you’re concerned and want to see him take some steps forward. Ask how you can help. Or schedule time with a counseling professional for advice. 



Posted on November 13, 2017 .