At the end of January the US Preventative Services Task Force published recommendations calling for all adults to be screened for depression, recognizing that depression is often not diagnosed and treated optimally. Some common societal attitudes contribute substantially to depression and to people not seeking help for depression.
This was wonderfully presented in last year’s popular movie “Inside Out.” In the movie, heroine Riley experienced loss when her family moved to a new place. Loss naturally leads to several emotions, including sadness, but Riley believed sadness was a “bad” emotion, in part because her parents affectionately referred to her as their “happy girl.”
In rejecting her feelings of sadness, Riley started showing signs of depression. She felt hopeless and helpless, isolated herself from others, and started becoming emotionally numb. The progression to depression was checked when she was able to feel sadness and express it to her parents, who reassured her that her feelings were valid and that her sadness did not damage their love for her.
This is the power of others’ influence on us as human beings. We are incredibly social organisms. Our survival and success as a species is largely based on our ability to work together, which is fueled by emotional interconnection.
Our need for emotional and social validation can be a source of positive motivation. Conversely, it can be a source of immense anxiety when we perceive ourselves to be unacceptable to others. When that anxiety becomes belief that no one will recognize us as valuable despite our best efforts, depression looms.
This cycle can be interrupted. An expression of empathy by another person can work wonders, as portrayed in the movie when Riley’s father responds to her expression of sadness by revealing that he, too, misses their old home.
All too often, however, people’s sadness is met with awkward silence, pep talks, or condescending sympathy. Empathy, rather than sympathy, requires acknowledging one’s own similar experience, and as a society we are typically uncomfortable admitting to vulnerable emotions like sadness. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign demonstrates this, based as it is largely on his promotion of himself as a “winner” who has no vulnerabilities. Many societal messages we hear in the US equate vulnerability with weakness and weakness with inferiority, so Trump’s rhetoric strikes a chord with many Americans.
Trying to portray ourselves as invulnerable, however, disables a primary bridge between us and other people. As Riley learns in the movie, accepting assistance is as important to relational bonding as giving it, and having strong relational bonds is one of the best inoculations against depression. This is partly how counseling provides such effective depression treatment. Therapists also teach life strategies that prevent depression and increase self satisfaction.
Sadness is not a deadly infectious disease. Acknowledging a need for help is not weak, but requires substantial strength and courage. Until we as a society recognize these truths and act on them, both in policy and in our daily lives, depression will be impossible for us as a society to address successfully.