June 29, 2017

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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.

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Comments

Blog

A much-needed and very readable piece. It shows great insight into how distress originates and manifests along with good practical suggestions for people.

Depression article

Thanks for this.It helps to have a way to explain to people the feelings we may have when feeling very low.Not easy to describe when trying to explain to friends etc.Keep up the excellent work.Your site has helped me in Canada.

Amazing

Thank you for writing this so beautifully explained. Unless you have been to that place I guess hard to comprehend or know what to say. I've heard people say things like "you need to get a grip" it's so hurtful and so unhelpful but I guess comes from a lack of understanding on their part. Depression is hideous and thankfully there are amazingly people like you to help others understand. Xxx

Thanks

Thanks so much for reading and commenting Sally. I'm glad you found it helpful.

Very helpul

I found your blog post very helpful in confirming to myself that as a carer / supporter of someone with mental health issues, I'm doing the right things. My daughter has had two psychotic episodes in last two years, resulting in her being sectioned and staying in hospital for treatment. After the episodes she experiences emotional 'flatness' and 'numbness'. Apparently quite common after psychosis and in my view a combination of effects of the meds and the impact of the condition itself. My daughter has low self esteem and is full of self doubt and self loathing. Constantly compares herself to others and thinks her problems aren't as bad as theirs, which then makes her feel guilty for being a moaner or general failure in life. I've never believed people with depression and other mental health issues can just 'get a grip'. If it was that simple it wouldn't be a problem in the first place. She struggles to make decisions regards her future. Currently studying at York University ( Writing, Directing and Performance ), after taking a leave of absence twice due to the psychosis but due to resume her studies in September, although shes currently not sure if she wants to continue. The depression affecting her at the moment is worrying me. Like you say in your blog, things can spiral downwards and whilst talking and listening seem to help I never stop worrying if shes okay. I'm driving up to York today to bring her home for the summer. I'll point her in the direction of your facebook page as I'm sure you'll be an inspiration to her. My daughter is very bright, intelligent and also very empathetic towards others. I do wish she could find some way to put herself first at times but her thoughts and condition don't allow her to do that as it makes her feel guilty and self-absorbed. Thanks again for your inspiring article Regards Lee

Thanks

Thanks so much Lee for reading and commenting. I'm sorry to hear about your daughter and wish her all the best for her recovery. It sounds like as well as being very supportive, you have some great insight into her condition. Please do send her a link to my Facebook page. Thanks again.

Thank you

Hello Lee, apologies for the late reply, my first response hasn't appeared for some reason. Thanks so much for reading the article and for your thoughts. I'm sorry to hear about your daughter's illness and wish her all the best for her recovery. It sounds like you have some great insight into her condition as well as being very supportive. Thanks again, Catherine.

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