Mental health / Mental Health & Wellbeing

Depression Is No More About Strength Than it Is About Weakness

“Depression isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you’ve been strong for too long.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert

“The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.”

“The struggle you’re in today is developing the strength you need for tomorrow. Don’t give up.” ~ Robert Tew

“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” ~ A. A. Milne

“If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.” ~ Maya Angelou

So, as a person with a set of mental health issues I follow a lot of mental health orientated blogs, twitter accounts and Facebook pages. And these blogs, twitter accounts and Facebook pages often post a lot of similar memes.

Now at first I mostly just scrolled passed the memes; for someone who has a commonplace book filled with favourite quotations I’m surprisingly not that fond of memes, but as time’s gone on I’ve began to find them gradually more and more annoying. Until it got to the point that they annoyed me so much that I thought that I should sit down and examine what it was about them that I find so annoying.

And I came up with this.

My pet hate is the one people are forever posting on Facebook about how:

“Depression isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you’ve been strong for too long.”

And I’ve decided that the reason it makes me grind my teeth every time I read it is that it just seems so insufferably smug.

Like the person who wrote it, and the people who are continually reposting it onto seemingly every corner of the internet, genuinely believe that they’re somehow braver – and by implication better – as a result of living with their depression than everyone else.

And it’s the same to a greater or lesser extent with all the others.

I appreciate that people are sharing these memes with the aim of supporting people who have depression to stop feeling guilty about it and to educate those who don’t have depression so that they understand that it isn’t about weakness or sufferers not trying hard enough; but it always feels to me like what they’re actually doing is almost romanticising depression. It’s as though they’re trying to make out that people with depression are somehow ‘special’, ‘heroic’ or ‘other’. I don’t think that’s a healthy approach to take to any sort of illness.

It’s the same angle that’s taken in all those cartoon strips floating around that attempt to explain anxiety by portraying suffers as special little snowflakes who just need to be handled with a lot more care than regular people.

I don’t have depression because I’m any more or less strong than anyone else. I don’t have anxiety because I’m any more or less delicate.

I have depression and anxiety due to some combination of a bunch of horrific things happening and my brain never having worked quite the way it should have done to start with.

There’s nothing ‘brave’ about spending two days barricaded in your bedroom with furniture piled in front of the door because the person you live with is away and your crazy brain has convinced you that there are dangerous intruders in the house who are lying in wait for you downstairs.

There’s nothing ‘special’ about a trip to the emergency room to have your arms patched back together because you’ve sliced them up so good that you can’t make them stop spurting with blood and you’re half way convinced that this time you’ve managed to hit a major artery.

And while, as I say, I appreciate that these attempts at destigmatisation are well-meaning, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to suggest that there is. I think that these memes are creating a new narrative about what a mental illness looks like, and who a person who suffers with their mental health is ,which in its own way is just as unhelpful as the one it’s seeking to replace.

Tell people with depression and anxiety that they’re special and brave and they’re likely to feel even worse about themselves when they can’t manage to function properly; because on top of being able to function properly they’re now also supposed to be special and brave, and they’re almost certainly not going to feel special or brave – they do have depression and anxiety after all so, oh great, there’s something else that everyone else is able to do that they’ve just failed at.

I also don’t think that this romaticisation is helpful to anyone around the patient either – family, friends, coworkers – I’m maybe not just talking about memes here but the entire campaign that the memes spring from. And that’s because it doesn’t begin to convey just how painful, disheartening, and down right ugly it can be to have to take care of someone who suffers from moderate to severe depression and anxiety.

I think that the only way that we’re going to genuinely tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness is if we’re completely honest about the bad times, and just how bad they can be, rather than insisting that we’re just like everyone except that we’re a bit more antisocial and we sometimes find some parts of life a little bit harder.

Stigma in any area of life arises because many people are incredibly easily scared by things that they don’t understand. These memes annoy me because I think that they’re likely to make people more rather than less afraid when a genuine, unsanitised mental illness manifests itself either in their own mind or that of someone close to them.

 

 

 

Advertisements

13 thoughts on “Depression Is No More About Strength Than it Is About Weakness

  1. A good read. I have mixed feelings about some of this…
    When it comes to depression I think you’re spot-on. The issue I see with those sorts of memes is that they make strength out to be an innate trait, like something you have or don’t, and suggest that you have it because you’re depressed — And you’re exactly right, if a person doesn’t feel strong that could easily make them feel more depressed.
    It would be much better, if strength-like-things is the narrative that people want to push, to discuss how someones behaviour is like courage, in that you’re doing things that make you uncomfortable just because you know that you must.
    Still not exactly great, for some of the reasons you’ve already outlined, but preferable to the ‘You’re strong just because your brain is fighting you’ thing…
    So that’s all agreement, and the mixed feelings come into play with your criticism of the “special snowflake” narrative for anxiety.
    Perhaps you’re just railing against the idea of all anxiety being painted as ‘needing extra care’ while it ignores the messier darker bits, which I can certainly agree with.
    Those gritty, and bloody bits can’t be hidden under ‘sparkles of specialness’, even if sometimes people really do just need a bit of extra care, there can easily be other times (or/and other people) for whom that’s just not relevant.
    ….Given your latter statements though, it seems as though you dislike the idea that anxiety makes one ‘special’ in any sense of the term at all, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s accurate definition wise; I mean it certainly makes one ‘not normal’, by the very definition of not having an average experience… I guess perhaps you may also just want to reserve the term ‘special’ for positive things, and I can respect that, even if I feel like I don’t really agree. (But please bear in mind, I’ve actually never seen any of these memes proclaiming anxiety sufferers specialness, maybe I’d actually hate them?)
    I’m strongly bias though. I was told (oh so many times) how I’m not alone in what I feel, and how many other people experience anxiety, which eroded my sense that anything I experienced was in any way important, and lead me to desperately want to have some tiny shred of uniqueness, not to merely be a single drop in an ocean of other peoples suffering.
    That desperation makes me easy prey for memes that cater to my burning lack of self-worth.
    What can I say, I want to be a special snowflake, and one of the most obviously ‘different from average’ things is my anxiety. Quite possibly it’s just foolish to want that, but knowing that doesn’t make me want it any less.

    Like

    • It would help if my phone wasn’t so rubbish and could find some examples for you of what I’m referring to when I was complaining about the anxiety things that I’ve seen. I’ll try and find them when I’m home and can use a proper computer. But basically I just find them really patronising. They show an ‘anxious’ person and then a ‘friend’ asks them to go out and do something but the anxious person can’t/won’t due to their anxiety and the friend gives them a hard time about it. Then a different ‘friend’ asks them to do something but this time when they say they can’t/won’t the ‘friend’ is understanding and coaxes them out in a manner similar to that employed with animals and babies who can’t really understand words yet. I don’t think that it helps that a few them are even illustrated with animals rather than people.

      I also dislike them for much the same reasons I don’t like the thing about strength. It suggests that people with anxiety are just a bit more delicate and fragile than everyone else, which I don’t think is the case, and is what prompted the ‘special snowflake’ comment. It implies that anxiety is just a problem where sometimes the anxious person is a bit silly and gets scared of nothing and doesn’t want to do stuff, but if someone is just a bit nice about it everything is fine. Again, really patronising. And yes, because it ignores that in reality it’s often a lot, lot grimmer to deal with than that.

      I’m also worried about the idea of mental illness conveying ‘specialness’ since I’ve seen and overheard teenagers comparing the self harm they’ve done in ‘nice’ artistic patterns and discussing how their mental health problems, which seemed to a greater or lesser extent for most of them to be an affectation, made their experiences more ‘real’ and them as people more ‘genuine’ and, yes, ‘special’ than other people. So I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage people to wallow in their mental health problems and to see them as the thing to accentuate about themselves because it makes them special, rather than looking at them for what they are, illnesses that need treatment.

      I’m sorry if that’s a bit disjointed and/or didn’t make a whole lot of sense, I find it really difficult to write anything longer than a tweet on my phone.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Even just the description does illustrate both why you dislike those memes, as well as your choice of words, and yes, I can definitely see that as being quite repugnant and patronizing.
        Dehumanization, and the implication of simple kindness is capable of “fixing” anxiety are not pretty nor helpful ideas to be spreading around.
        I can see why you dislike them, and from what you’ve said I think I actually agree.

        Hmm… I think that someone willing to go the lengths of harming themself severely just to feel special does indicate that they have a genuine mental health problem, perhaps it’s more like Münchausens than depression/anxiety, or perhaps as you say it’s people who are depressed/anxious who are accentuating their struggles.
        On the other hand I’ve seen people do some things that amount to scarification with no real intent to seriously harm themselves. Which I think it’s worth pointing out that humans have been doing for millennia, and if that’s the extent of their self mutilation to carve out their identities (no pun intended) then saying it’s depression/anxiety is just the smokescreen du jour, and their actual experience, and actions, may have little or nothing to do with any glorifying of mental health problems.

        Back to the first hand, I know that some people may accentuate their illness because they feel like it does make them special (observe the pro “ana” and pro “mia” websites) but if that is caused by validation that their experiences are different in the very profoundly negative way in which other sufferers can provide, then perhaps the issue is not the validation but the method through which they are receiving validation.
        The sociologist Desmond Morris discussed the phenomena of people associating more strongly with a portion of their identity because they saw it as ‘ignored’ or ‘under attack’. Whether we as a society want to acknowledge that mental health end up being part of someones identity or not, I believe that the variation in perception does set one apart, and I do genuinely thing that just like any other aspect of identity, not having acknowledging of it may, in some cases (I’m not keen to blanket this issue), lead to feeling the validity of their experience is being questioned, feel the need to accentuate struggles until they are noticed, and noticeable.
        If we instead allow those who do have struggles to be acknowledge sincerely, and assured that it is okay even exist as an anxious person and be honest about that, and make sure that the validation offered does not frame things in the sense of being a ‘race to the bottom’ or a need to be more flamboyant just to be seen… Then I do genuinely think that might actually improve things not cause them to devolve.

        If we are explicitly honest about the experience of having anxiety, and present all the gritty terrible things turning them out for the sun, and acknowledge the differences and struggles, that it doesn’t confer some otherwise unreachable knowledge (of course it it doesn’t, how would it?), then maybe we don’t have to be black and white (all or nothing) about the “specialness” of having anxiety.
        I don’t see the need to going all the way to the other end of the spectrum and denying that something which has such a significant impact upon ones life can actually in some cases be part of ones identity for fear of potentially glorifying the experience.
        (Which reflects memes I have seen, often dismissing the idea of any ‘illness’ could contribute to a persons sense of self– because negative things clearly don’t ever impact and shape us, right? loud scoff)

        I’m interested in honesty about mental health struggles, honesty above all else.
        Despite the utter mountain of horrible, miserable experiences that having anxiety heaps upon a person if would be nice if acknowledging that sometimes the experience contributes to who we are.

        I hope this all makes sense. <.<

        Like

  2. although i dont have depression, when i was on life support for heart failure i constantly heard how “strong” i was. i mean, i was literally just sitting there watching food network all day every day. it was something that fate and doctors did to me, not anything i did to or for myself, so the application of agency (ie that i was actively doing something for my situation) was super-irritating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see how that would get annoying. I always think it seems inappropriate when people who are hospitalised, especially people who are being treated for cancer, it’s always said about people with cancer, are described as being brave and as bravely fighting their illness. Then I feel like I’m being unduly mean, albeit only in my head, about really sick people. But bravery is something you show when you chose to do something you don’t have to like run back into a burning building to save a child. No one would get cancer given the choice.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you! I feel the same way about how “brave” people are for “fighting” their cancer… my aunt passed away a month after her brain cancer diagnosis and the entire month, plus the funeral, etc it was “isn’t she so strong?” and “she’s being so brave” and I would look over and see a woman in a bathroom eating ice cream… One of the lines in her eulogy was something like “after her courageous struggle against cancer” and I couldn’t stop myself from thinking “it was metastasized stage 4 cancer when they discovered it, there was nothing they could have done” Accepting reasonable medical treatment for 4 weeks doesn’t seem like much of a “fight” if you ask me! Of course I’d never say it out loud, especially not around my family, but I’m glad I’m not alone with this perspective.

        Like

  3. THIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIS.

    Sarah, I’m urrently healing from an OD and I loved this so much, really. yes. I’m now reaaaallly concerned i might have posted something similar, but actually maybe not, I don’t know, I’m not well currently.

    Like

    • I’m really, really sorry you’re sick, and really glad you liked the post, and I hope you’re still doing okay. Like I said the other day let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. Take care of you. Xxx

      Like

  4. It is not as simple as just a chemical inbalance. We are all influenced by our past experiences and current influences same with ALL illness. That inbalance is triggered by an event. If you read Dr Christopher Cantophers book ‘Depressive illness curse of the strong’ it explains the link between people being strong for too long and their brain chemistry. In my book and most other peoples it is the definitive guide on stress related depression. It is short and v much worth a read.
    Quotes about depression can be very helpful to people give context to their illness and make them feel less alone.
    Admitting that you have been strong for too long IS the reality for a lot of people and the reason that triggered the depression and the chemical inbalance

    Like

  5. I think there’s also a problem with romanticizing depression because then people who don’t actually have depression start to exaggerate their own sadness to try to be that person. I’m thinking along the lines of Virgin Suicides (moreso the movie, than the book.) It’s portrayed as this beautiful, light image of a mysterious young woman who hides away or acts out in heartbreakingly beautiful, poetic ways…. so then everyone suddenly is depressed and suicidal because it’s just such a beautiful, truthful way to interpret life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly. I’ve seen and overheard a lot of teenagers lately doing just that, it’s really worrying. I want to shake them and make them see that it’s not the way to be, but I can’t, so I wrote this instead.

      Like

  6. You write really eloquently about this but I simply dont agree.
    With depression every day I wanted to die but I kept myself alive. Evey day depression told me I was worthless it and I battled not to believe it. Every day with depression I felt there was no hope but I tried to have faith. I’m not bragging nor special but when I look back from a place of increased wellness do I think that was strong? Yes I do, I really do.

    Like

    • I’m not suggesting that you weren’t, you’re right to be proud of getting through it; but it’s simply not true that got your depression because you’re a strong person, and to say that you did, that everybody does is just going more ammunition to the ‘you’ve got nothing to be depressed about, snap out of it’ brigade. You got depression because you have a chemical imbalance in your brain.

      Liked by 1 person

I'd love to hear what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s