EVERY PERSON who has never dealt with a mental illness has probably made at least one ignorant suggestion in a concerned moment. It doesn’t take long for people with depression to start hearing the train of banal platitudes about how exercise, social engagements, and healthy food can help them “beat” their diagnosis.
The truth is, each person’s mental illness is different. We each require a unique combination of support systems to help us stay healthy. Unfortunately, suggestions like the ones above don’t recognize pharmaceutical remedies. A lot of folks believe that people who rely on medications to treat mental illness are weak and lazy. According to this school of thought, patients who fail to recover their mental health through nature walks and yoga classes don’t really want to get better.
To be clear, there’s nothing innately wrong with these tips. Eating better and staying active can help offset the negatives of depression. However, when a person feels like doing absolutely nothing, such overly simplistic, straightforward “advice” can further alienate them from friends and family. If these suggestions are the only ones offered to people with chronic conditions, they may soon find themselves believing that there is no way out, no light at the end of the tunnel. After all, if you hear nothing but stories about how stronger individuals used willpower and superfoods to “cure” themselves, you’ll eventually begin to doubt yourself — and your future — when those plans of action fail to work out for you.
Thankfully, there are ways to handle depression when nothing feels good. We’ll be focusing on that mental illness in particular here, but some of the strategies below may also work for people who have other chronic conditions.
Also, before we get too far into this, please understand that you may be depressed even if you do not have a clinical diagnosis. Self-diagnosis can be problematic sometimes, but — because mental health care is expensive and difficult to come by, and because some people may have trouble finding a doctor or therapist who understands issues affecting their particular communities — it is important to avoid judging people who have not been clinically diagnosed as attention-seekers, liars, or fakes. If you say you have mental illness, then I believe you. Period.
1. Understand That You Are Not Alone
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “[a]n estimated 16 million American adults — almost 7% of the population — had at least 1 major depressive episode last year.” Chances are good that you know at least one of those people, but that they might not feel comfortable talking openly about their experiences, due to the stigma mental illness carries.
Reach out. Don’t be afraid to ask other people if they know what you are going through. If you can’t form a support system out of people you know, find a local group or online community of people who can understand your mental illness and help you when it threatens to overwhelm you.
2. Fight Boredom, Not Feelings
Contrary to popular belief, depression isn’t always a crushing weight of sadness and blight. Sometimes it’s a total lack of emotion and interest in things that would normally excite you. When your depression takes that turn, it’s important to focus your attention on fighting boredom, rather than trying to “fix” your feelings.
Do whatever doesn’t make you feel worse. If that happens to mean doing things that are good for your body, such as eating healthy food and staying active, all the better. But sometimes it’s as simple as finding something to occupy your mind, like playing Scrabble, painting, or journaling.
These activities might not “cure” your depression, but, so long as they aren’t worsening your mood or physical well-being, you can consider them good for you. If you ever feel that you are exhausting yourself, it’s OK to take a day to watch Netflix and eat potato chips, so long as you start anew tomorrow.
3. Banish Toxic People and Places from Your Life
When you have depression, picking up your phone or opening your email can be unbearable. Although it’s important to maintain relationships with the people who care about you, dealing with depression often means divorcing yourself from toxic people and the places they frequent. If Facebook and Twitter make you feel worse, and you dread checking them, even to stay in touch with your support network, then give up those apps until you feel better, and tell your good friends that they will have to use other means to contact you.
If it upsets you to think about giving up “normal” activities, remember: this lifestyle change may not be forever. I take frequent social media breaks as part of my self-care routine. Taking care of yourself is what’s important right now, so just do what it takes to make it through today, every day.