Rewiring our reactions to depression

Depression.

As a nation, the word still scares us, doesn’t it?

We don’t quite know how to react when we hear it. We’re tentative and hesitant, reticent and avoidant. It’s easier to change the subject or steer it towards safety than to affect a different perspective that challenges taboo.

Generally, we’re more comfortably with the word when it sits in our mundane taxonomy of everyday chitchat. We can control it there. We can manipulate it. We can make it fit into our worldview, often lazy and self-serving, because it makes us feel better.

We can forget it, or sweep it under the carpet. We can pretend it doesn’t exist. Not really.

Sure, progress has been made in recent decades. The subject of mental health is now firmly on the cultural agenda, and our societies have become more tolerant and engaged. But totally exhuming stigma is a generational process that will take many years. We’re still a long way from reaching that end goal.

Broadly speaking, our instinctive societal response to mental ill health is still incredulity and indignation rather than acceptance and empathy. Said incredulity may be dulled, smothered or even unconscious in modernity, but it is still there, connected to our internal wiring, a default output of our internal voices. To truly create a fresh understanding of depression, and ultimately instigate change, that sad truth must be corrected. We must change how we treat those enduring mental ill health.

I’ve experienced first-hand the stigma that still engulfs depression. I’ve seen disbelief wash over faces when a diagnosis is disclosed. I’ve seen panic dominate eyes and fear permeate the air. I’ve seen the suspicion and scepticism and alienation.

Depression?

No!

It must be something else.

They just give pills to anybody these days.

You need to go back to the doctors.

It’s time to get real. This shit happens to people. All kinds of people. Depression does not discriminate. You never know what is going on in somebody else’s mind. More importantly, you have no right to force a medical diagnosis through your own inherently biased moral compass, hoping to produce some favourable residue that tastes sweeter to you. We’re not making lemonade here. Acceptance is the first step to recovery.

Of course, we should talk more about mental health. Conversation will help break the barriers that remain. Discussion will illuminate the lack of knowledge that must be rectified. Debate will expose the prejudices that belong to another era. However, somebody else’s mental ill health should not be a topic around the water machine or lunch table, unless they want it to be. We need to move beyond the whispers and suspicious glances, the gossip and rumour. We need to create a fresh context for mental health; a context of affinity, understanding and compassion, as opposed to isolation, disownment and annoyance.

Talking about mental health is very beneficial, but at present, all too often it creates an open forum for unsolicited opinion that actually worsens the confusion of those who suffer. Challenge your own reactions to depression, and let’s rethink the entire process. Find your unconscious biases and confront them. That’s the only way to improve.

When somebody confides in you and reveals intimate details about their mental health, actually take a moment to stop and think. Right now, the world is a nervous, hectic, frantic mess and we’re hooked to apps, phones, gadgets and obligations. We must do this; we must do that; we must do the other. Now. Now. Now.

Stop!

When discussing mental health, being present is vital. We must actually pause, think, digest, reflect and consider. Put down the pacifiers. Compartmentalise the priorities. Actually take on board what people are saying in its raw form, untrammelled from your preconceived reactions. Weigh it. Value it. Ponder it. Maybe you will learn something. Maybe you can bring a fresh solution, a new outlook. Maybe you can help rather than sneering judgementally.

As in all areas and attributes of life, some people are further advanced than others in their understanding and appreciation of depression and mental health. Yet in order to improve as a culture, a country and a global community, we must strive for progress. Highlighting errors is a key component of that evolution. We can all improve here. Every single one of us. Unity is a major asset in any war, including that against discrimination, and now is the time to come together in support of a greater good.

Egotism and pride are two chief enemies of progress in the fight for mental health equalities. Understanding other people requires humility, poise and an interest in things beyond our own sphere of influence. As a populace, we’re not good at that. We prefer to shout about how great we are - to convey in boisterous tones our excellence and the degree to which we are extraordinary. Forget that. Nobody is better than anybody else, and we could all use a little love.

Park the ego, and we might just get somewhere.

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