When we first confided in someone else about our depression, we may have heard the words, ‘But you have so much to be grateful for!’
It’s a common response to mental health issues; sometimes said in exasperation, sometimes a genuine attempt to help us to look on the bright side. Yet despite good intentions, it can also be profoundly unhelpful.
Some people may wonder why. After all, scientific studies have proved that practising gratitude has enormous benefits for our psychological wellbeing. So what’s wrong with reminding a loved one of their good fortune when they’re feeling low?
What follows is my perspective based on personal experience:
1. It makes us feel like we haven’t been listened to
Opening up about our mental health requires courage. We’re placing our trust in you, and how you respond to that trust is crucial. If your immediate reaction is to argue that we shouldn’t be depressed because of all the positive things in our lives, what we hear is that you don’t understand or accept our feelings.
2. It assumes we’re in control of our emotions
Keeping a gratitude journal might help us on a grey Monday morning when we don’t want to go to work, but depression is so much more than a passing bad mood. In the grip of the illness we can be overwhelmed with intense and unbearable feelings of sadness, hopelessness or loss. Or so exhausted and numb inside that we can’t feel anything at all. You wouldn’t tell a friend who’d broken their leg to be thankful they don’t have cancer, and expect their fractured bone to stop hurting. The same applies to depression. We may be too consumed by pain to be capable of experiencing gratitude, or too drained of energy to try.
3. It can create or worsen guilt
Telling us to be grateful assumes that we’re not already conscious of our privilege. In truth, many of us are highly sensitive, empathic individuals who are affected by injustice and the misery of others every time we switch on the news. Depression makes us prone to low self-esteem and guilt. We may feel we have ‘no right’ to suffer as we do. So any hint (intentional or otherwise) that our illness is selfish or self-absorbed can send us spiralling into a worse state than before.
4. It misunderstands the causes of depression and perpetuates stigma
Each time a celebrity speaks out about their mental health, someone always says; ‘I don’t have any sympathy for them. I wouldn’t be depressed if I had their advantages.’
Although depression can be a reaction to adverse life circumstances, it can also affect anyone, regardless of wealth or success. Even people who are happy and content with their lives are not immune from episodes of mental ill-health. When we tell people with depression to count their blessings, we perpetuate the stigma of mental illness by implying it stems from a lack of perspective. A so-called ‘first world problem.’ In fact, depression exists across many cultures and has its roots in a complex combination of neurological, social and environmental factors, some of which are not yet fully understood.
So what should you say to someone who tells you about their depression? Of course, it depends on the person and your relationship with them, but listening, acknowledging the reality of their experience, and offering your support without judgement are always good places to start.