Depression is a sickness, not a weakness

For too long, an implied correlation between mental ill health and personal weakness has infected our communities, creating barriers to recovery and fuelling stigma.

Too many people view depression as a character flaw, a personality glitch, or a defect within our natural makeup. Those who suffer with depression are often branded weak, soft or sensitive with a low tolerance of stress, pressure or responsibility. Just get over it. Cheer up. There’s people far worse off than you.

Well I’ve got news for those who still associate depression with a supposed causal deficiency in anything: mental health is not an attribute to be quantified, compared, ranked or categorised. Mental health is not a quality, a feature, a characteristic or a trait. Mental health stands alone.

Being bad at maths is an inadequacy of skill. Being unable to swim is an insufficiency of adroitness. Being depressed is not a paucity of resilience nor a shortage of strength.

Mental health is autonomous from any other factor, influenced by surroundings, circumstances and nature but not constructed from them.

Sickness is not a weakness. Sickness is sickness: an independent concept that greatly affects the lives of those it meets, often allowing them to resist its ravages only through tremendous pain, adjustment and perseverance.

We’re sick, not weak. Okay?

So before you greet news of a depression diagnosis with sneering dismissal, sighing suspicion or indignant doubt, please consider the immense bravery and strength required of an individual to reach that point.

Disclosing depression to friends, family or an employer is the culmination of an often-torturous journey. First, we ourselves must come to terms with such a diagnosis. We must accept it, understand it and analyse it. Then we have to find the space and clarity of thought to place our own depression within some kind of context, allowing us to eventually piece together a roadmap to recovery. Telling other people and actually vocalising our struggles is a huge landmark along that road. It’s a victory indicative of progress, not a defeat predictive of capitulation.

If you think those with depression are weak, frail, overly sensitive or lacking in the accoutrements of toughness- that characteristic so prized in our warped society - please reconsider.

When you feel totally unable to crawl out of bed due to crippling worry, but you somehow still report to work on time, smiling through a façade, is that weakness?

Sounds like strength to me.

When the black mist descends and you can’t see a point to anything, but you persist through the dread, swallowing the scary grief, to get on with your day like everybody else, is that weakness?

Surely it’s strength.

And when merely communicating requires monumental effort, zapping your energy and wearing you down, but you keep delivering, grinding through the tired gloom, is that weakness?

No, it’s not.

Everybody is fighting battles you know nothing about. The most ravenous worries lie behind the most dazzling smiles, a mask providing shelter. The most destructive self-doubt lurks behind the funniest jokes, comedy serving as defence mechanism. The most painful anxiety finds a home within the loudest egos, bravado smothering worry.

We all have mental health. Nobody is immune to the peaks and troughs, the rushes and vagaries, just as with physical ailments. We would all do well to remember that.

Somewhere along the way, this corrupted society prescribed immense value to grit and resolve and strength. Staying at the office until 9pm is good, apparently. It will stand you in great stead for promotions, for status, for job titles and money, for watches and cars and all the paraphernalia of middle class opulence. But will it make you happy? Will it make you healthy, mentally and physically? No. No it won’t. It will just help you lose yourself quicker.

For so long, we have existed within archaic social structures that categorises skills and traits so rigidly. Stiff upper lip – good; calling in sick – bad. Breaking the pain barrier – good; taking time to look after yourself – bad. Stern leadership and unstoppable drive – good; depression – bad.

It’s time to change this twisted thinking, this misplaced meritocracy, this buckled ecosystem of preconceived responses. Anybody can achieve anything in any way they choose, at any pace they see fit, in any manner they deem comfortable. There’s no place for hiding things in the modern world. The days of changing yourself to conform, moulding your personality to meet other people’s criteria for ‘normality,’ should be over. Be yourself and achieve your dreams. Don’t let hostility hold you back.

We’re not all the same, and that’s a wonderful thing. We all have passions, hobbies, beliefs, values and ambitions that, for too long, have been triaged by the alpha masters of societal norms. If you love reading, read! If you adore dancing, dance! If you’re interested in pottery or poetry, fashion or photography, baseball or backgammon, let it all out. Create. Consume. Enjoy! Life’s too short to suffocate your true identity in obedience of cultural rules that, by attainment, lead to approval from people whose opinions don’t mean anything to you anyway. Focus on yourself.

By the same token, let’s stop judging people. If someone is masculine or feminine, black or white, gay or straight, it doesn’t matter. We’re all human. We all know how hard life can be. We all face demons every single day. Why would we knowingly add to those common burdens by judging and shaming, criticising and condemning? Let’s get real here.

The same applies to mental ill health in all its various guises. Suffering with depression shouldn’t instantly earmark a person as unstable, unsafe or unreliable. It doesn’t preclude our ability to perform at a very high level, achieving great things, occasionally even brushing with genius. Some of the strongest, brightest, most inspirational people in human history have suffered with depression. Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway; Kurt Cobain, Marlon Brando and Stephen Fry. The list goes on.

One in four people will suffer a mental health problem in their lifetime. Think about the train you get to work, the office you sit in every day, the clubs you join and the events you attend. Take a look around. We should never write anybody off. We should never kill anybody’s dreams. We should never underestimate the stunning potential and ceaseless beauty of our human condition, which allows success to grow from even the most depleted environments.

You just never know in life, and that unpredictability is at once the finest blessing and darkest curse imaginable.

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