Depression Isn’t Sadness and Suicide Isn’t a Cry For Help… by Steve Safran

Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. Two gut-punching suicides that have people asking “Why them? They had it all!” Sure, Bourdain lived a hard life, but Kate Spade, the queen of whimsy? She was wealthy, adored and…


We need better words. One of the biggest disservices to the field of mental health is to call the diagnosis of “depression” by the name “depression.” Everyone “gets depressed.” It’s a commonplace word: “I’m so depressed the meeting I planned fell through.” “The ending of that show was too depressing.” “He’s too depressing to be around.”

None of these examples has anything to do with the psychological definition of Depression.

People who live with depression are wired differently. Our brains perceive life differently than those who do not have depression. Let me put it another way.

Suppose you were born left-handed in this predominantly right-handed world. Suppose that was considered OK from time to time, but generally not an excuse to use your dominant hand. Righties would say “Why are you using your left hand? Your right hand works perfectly well.” Or, “I had a cousin who was left handed, but with a lot of work, he forced himself to use his right hand.” Or, “Why not just use your right hand? You wouldn’t need the special scissors.”

But I’m still a lefty, you’d say. I’d like to be a righty, but everything comes out all wobbly and it’s so uncomfortable. Can’t you just understand I’m part of the 10 percent of the population that is left handed?

Depression is exhausting. And it’s cruel. It tells you terrible things about yourself. That’s why Ms. Spade and Mr. Bourdain died. I can’t speak for their experiences, but I can speak for my own and what I know to be true from many other patients with depression: our minds become ruthless bullies. They tell us the meanest things about ourselves. They stockpile ammunition and open fire. And we have to sit there and take it because, well, it’s coming from our own brains.

45,000 people committed suicide in 2016. Suicide rates are up 30 percent just since 1999, according to NBC news. Only about half of those victims were known to have a mental health diagnosis. We do not talk about this issue enough, and when we do, we don’t really know what we’re talking about, or when we do, Depression is conflated with “feeling depressed.”

News organizations have taken to posting suicide hotline numbers when they run stories about suicide. That’s a responsible act of journalism, but it’s like running the number for 911 in an article about a car accident. People with depression know there is help, but their brain is telling them it’s time to die. The evil mix of ill-behaving neurotransmitters and whatever they have been through in life lands on a singular message: You must kill yourself.

Even in that moment, they know they have friends they can call. They know there are hotlines. But they are not interested in anything other than stopping that message, stopping the pain.

I suggest much more empathy in this area. As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression since the days of mixtapes, I’ve heard lots of well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) people say it all: “You’ve got a great life. What do you have to be depressed about?” (I don’t know. What do you have to be left-handed about?) “There are lots of people who have it worse off than you.” (Yes. And I still have depression.) “Just smile. How hard is it just to be happy?” (As hard as it would be for you to become left-handed while people insisted you use the regular scissors.)

My personal experience with this rotten condition has been horrid. I am certain I would have been more successful in my career without depression. For years, especially when I was younger, I wasn’t treated properly. As I got older, I was blamed for the illness that gripped me, as though it was a choice I made. I was called “lazy,” and put on meds that had me gain a ton of weight. People I loved mocked my illness, likely out of discomfort they may have it themselves. (They’re not much in the picture anymore.) In any case, there was not a lot of empathy.

We can’t stop suicide and depression. But we can understand it a lot better. I raise money for Movember, which supports research for men’s cancer and also the depression that can accompany it. This is something tangible I feel I can do. But all of us can do this: we can stop telling people with depression to “cheer up.” We can be more sensitive to this very real, very misunderstood disease.

Those of us with depression do not want to be treated as a protected class. We don’t want special rights or to be treated gently. You can’t make me depressed any more than you can make me a lefty. Empathy and acceptance are an enormous gift to those struggling to ignore the mean messages from their own minds.

Think about Robin Williams. Think about Kate Spade. Think about Anthony Bourdain. Think about the joy they brought you in their unique ways. Think about what you would have said to them, knowing they were going to take their lives. “Don’t do that” would not have worked. Instead of shameful, head-shaking whispers, let’s acknowledge suicide as the growing epidemic it is, and insist health care do more to support mental health.

Depression is not about what we have; it’s about what has us.


630 responses

  1. Steve, you hit the nail on the head. I suffer from depression and anxiety, so I totally get it. I’m lucky, as I am receiving help through medication and psychotherapy, but it has not been easy. Your analogy of left-handedness is spot-on.

  2. “Depression is not about what we have; it’s about what has us.” What a powerful statement! There is much need for a paradigm shift when it comes to mental illness. I have several family members that’s suffer from depression and I try to do all I can to help and encourage them. From what I’ve learned being a non-judge mental listening friend is one of the most helpful things you can do. “Like apples of gold in silver carvingsIs a word spoken at the right time. Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold, is a wise reprover to the receptive ear.” (Proverbs 25:11,12). I look forward to God’s Kingdom when all sickness, sorrow, pain and death all things of the past (Revelation 21:3,4). Thank you for your insights.

  3. I can relate to a lot of what you have written. I have suffered from anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember- my family have often joked that I was born stressed out. I feel that the hardest part of living with these conditions is the overwhelming sense of loneliness. You isolate yourself with these terrible thoughts and they are only exasperated by comments like “you have a great life” or “what do you have to be depressed about?”.

    • “What do you have to be depressed about” makes as much sense as “You’re so rich, what do you have to have a broken leg about? One has nothing to do with the other. People mean well, but they don’t understand. A righty may have a broken right arm and need to use his left arm for 4-6 weeks, but he’ll never understand what it’s like to be a true lefty. People get sad, but they’ll never understand depression unless they get it. I hope you’re getting the help you need and the care you deserve.

  4. Amazing article, I feel sometimes with feeling of anxiety and depression and the truth is that the people around us do not understand because they think that this is drama.

  5. I would encourage anybody who wakes up in the morning generally angry that they didn’t die in their sleep, and that they have to suffer through yet another day, to please see what resources are available to them for counseling and medication. I used to be very medication-avoidant. Now that I’ve found my right combo, thanks to my wonderful, patient doctor who took me seriously and treated me like an intelligent person, I wake up with energy and no longer wish I were dead. I never thought that was possible, but here I am. It’s amazing.

    • Stell, that’s true for me as well.
      The medicine my doctor prescribed me help my body and brain balance out the extreme highs and lows that used to throw me off the track. Now I am able to think things through more logically (without that crazy voice in my head telling me, basically, lies. The same voice that told me the only way out of pain was to end my life. I have told that voice, thanks, but it isn’t needed anymore).
      At the same time I found inner calm through meditating a lot, and a sense of a life’s purpose through my own personal, spiritual journey (not religion based).
      That was my solution to living with depression and anxiety.

      At the very least I recommend people start today taking time out of their day for relaxation, even 5-10 minutes time out makes a difference. During this time you give yourself permission to let go of all and any thoughts and fears and relax your body, drain tension. Breathe deeply and slowly.
      Then go on with your day.

      And I highly recommend starting a meditation routine in any shape, that feels good and right to you. (It changes brain pattern behaviour over time, so it’s one more tool for your toolbox).

      Then go and seek help, you deserve to feel better. The help that will suit your needs is out there for you. Take the step. Do it.
      Even though it might take time to feel better, every step counts!

      • Great advice, Sally! Check out the many apps that can help with mindfulness and relaxation. I like “Calm” and “10 Percent Happier,” but there are lots to choose from, and we don’t “endorse” any specific one here. Maybe other readers have suggestions.

  6. I suffer from depression and right now I just don’t care if I die or not. I’ve been seeing psychiatrist ana taking meds but right now the meds don’t seem to be working. I don’t think I’m going back to my pdychiatrist because I think mental health care is just about money. They don’t really care about people. The average person can not afford mental health care. I’m sick and tired of these doctors and just sick and tired generally. Right now I just don’t gaf.

    • Morgan, you are truly aware of your feelings more than most people will ever experience and that is a strength of character you may not realize. I battled depression for many years and tried diffferent meds to no benefit (although I know they can be very effective to many). My route to peace was a combination of everything else including exercise, meditation, intermittent fasting, juicing, tai chi, stretching, and counseling. I especially benefitted from walking for a half hour 3 times a week which was actually my best meditation experience as I started early in the morning just before the sun came up and my spirit was lifted along with the sunrise. Please make the effort to enjoy life by finding what works best for you and know that there are many who are sharing this journey with you.

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