Depression is Not Sadness

[Content note: depression, suicide]

Yesterday I came across the story of Junior Seau, an NFL linebacker who committed suicide on May 2. He shot himself in the chest and was found in his home by his girlfriend. Although little is known of Seau’s mental health leading up to his death, he had apparently suffered from insomnia for the last seven years of his life.

Sportswriter Chris McCosky wrote a beautiful column in the Detroit News about Seau’s death and continuing ignorance about depression and suicide. In the column, McCosky shares his own experiences with depression and suicidal thoughts and laments how difficult it is to explain them to people. He notes, as I’ve noted before, that one common reaction that non-depressed people have is to wonder what the hell we have to be so sad about. He writes, “It’s almost impossible to talk about it to regular people (bosses, spouses, friends). They can’t fathom how somebody in good physical health, with a good job, with kids who love them, who seems relatively normal on the outside, can be terminally unhappy.”

The unbearable frequency at which McCosky and I and probably everyone else who tries to talk about depression get this response could be a testament to the fact the most visible symptom of depression is usually sadness. So that’s the one people latch on to: “What do you have to be so sad about?” “Cheer up!” “You have to decide to be happy!”

Because of the sheer obviousness of our sadness, we’re often forced to try to use it to describe depression. We say that we’re just extremely sad, or unhealthily sad, or a different kind of sad. It’s sadness that never goes away like sadness is supposed to. It’s sadness that’s out of proportion to the troubles that we face in our lives. It’s sadness that we can’t stop thinking about. For those of us with bipolar or cyclothymic disorder, it’s sadness that comes and goes much too quickly.

And it is. But the truth is that sadness actually has very little to do with depression, except that it is one of its many possible symptoms.

Based on the diagnostic criteria for depression, you don’t even need to be chronically sad to be considered “depressed.” Anhedonia, which means losing the ability to feel pleasure from things that you used to enjoy, could be present instead. Under the formal DSM-IV definition, you must have at least five of nine possible symptoms to have major depression–and one of the five must be either depressed mood or anhedonia–and only one of those symptoms involves sadness. (If you so some very basic math, you will notice that this means that two people, both of whom officially have major depression, might only have one symptom in common. Weird, huh?)

So, even if your particular depression does include sadness, it’ll only be one of many other symptoms. The others might be much more painful and salient for you than the sadness is. Some people can’t sleep, others gain weight, some think constantly about death, others can’t concentrate or remember anything. Many lose interest in sex, or food, or both. Almost everyone, it seems, experiences a crushing fatigue in which your limbs feel like stone and no amount of sleep ever helps. Then there are headaches, stomachaches, and so on.

So, depression doesn’t necessarily mean sadness to us. (And, a gentle reminder to non-depressed folks: being sad doesn’t mean you’re “depressed,” either.)

Depression is not sadness; it’s an illness that often, though not always, involves sadness. No amount of happy things will make a depressed person spontaneously recover, and, usually, no amount of sad things will make a well-adjusted person with good mental health suddenly develop depression. (Grief, of course, is another matter.) And sadness, on its own, does not cause suicide.

We need to start talking about mood disorders as disorders, not as emotional states. McCosky writes:

Junior Seau wasn’t sad when he pointed that gun to his chest. He wasn’t being a coward. He wasn’t being selfish. He was sick. I wasn’t sad when I thought about swerving into on-coming traffic on Pontiac Trail some 20 years ago. I was sick.

What he’s saying is that people don’t kill themselves because they’re sad. They kill themselves because they have an illness that, among other things, makes them feel sad. It also makes them feel like their life is worthless, like they’re a burden to others, like death would be easier, and all the other beliefs that lead people down the path to suicide.

There is a tendency, I think, to assume that people are depressed because they are sad. A better way to look at it is that people are sad because they are depressed. That’s why, even if we could “turn that frown upside down!” and “just look on the sunny side!” for your benefit, it would do absolutely no good. The depression would still be there, but in a different form.

Junior Seau did not leave a suicide note, so nobody will ever know what he was thinking when he died. I would guess, though, that he was thinking about much more than just being sad.

Guest Post: Doing Greek Right

Hello and apologies for the unintentional blogging hiatus. A good friend has sent me this guest post about her experience with Northwestern’s Greek system. My own opinions on the Greek system are probably familiar to everyone who reads this, but I enjoy discovering other perspectives and sharing them, too. Enjoy!

During my stint at Northwestern a million and a half years ago, the most popular cliché, along with “Wait, is this Swift or Annie May Swift?” and “Good lord, do those Theater kids on the ground floor of Norris ever stop talking?” was “I NEVER thought I’d join a sorority/fraternity.” In fact, statistically speaking, about one out of every three Northwestern students you met probably said, or at least felt, this sentiment at some point. They never thought they’d be one of “those” Greeks who carried around cute little tote bags, or had a house mom with a 1950s housewife name like PeggyAnn or Sue, or hung up a paddle (that came engraved with the warning “FOR DECORATIVE PURPOSES ONLY”) on the wall.

I am a cliché. To be fair, I’m an extreme version of the cliché- I’m a feminist and my hair looks like a yield sign and I once literally flew to Boston to be as far away from Dillo Day as possible, three characteristics that are the antithesis of the Greek stereotype. But I am a typical Northwestern student who came into school with a very negative picture of what Greek life could be. Nobody wants to be associated with alcohol poisoning or rape culture or Lifetime original movies–or at least, nobody that I’d ever want to be friends with. When Northwestern students join a sorority or fraternity, they join with the understanding that there are negative stigmas attached to it that didn’t just appear out of nowhere (see: here, here and here). I am also a typical Northwestern student who discovered the dichotomy within the Greek system: Greek life done wrong and Greek life done right.

First, we must travel back to 1896, when four collegiate women at State Female Normal School named Lenora, Julia, Sara and Mary banded together to form a ladies club. Three of these students ended up transferring, probably to schools whose names would make a snappier bumper sticker, but somehow, this friendship ended up growing into the monstrosity that is Kappa Delta. This nonprofit organization still operates under the object that my turn-of-the-century sisters created:

The object of Kappa Delta Sorority is the formation and perpetuation of good fellowship, friendship and sisterly love among its members; the encouragement of literature and education; the promotion of social interest; and the furtherance of charitable and benevolent purposes.

Nothing controversial there, right? We all like a good friendship, and although I haven’t really heard the term “fellowship” outside of Middle Earth, nothing wrong with that, either. In fact, browse through the websites of any Greek organization, and you’ll find the same sort of benevolent mission statement. Pi Kappa Alpha is devoted to “developing men of integrity, intellect, and high moral character and to fostering a truly lifelong fraternal experience.” Kappa Alpha Theta lists its values as scholarship, service, leadership, personal excellence and friendship/sisterhood. While some Greek organizations add their own unique twist–Phi Mu Alpha, for example, promotes “the advancement of music in America”–all Greek organizations were generally organized around the same principles of friendship, philanthropy and academics. What could possibly be wrong about an organization that promotes excellence in these ideals?

Fast forward to 2012. Every month, a new atrocity pops up on Jezebel related to Greek life. A hazing-related death of a “pledge”. Men chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” Even at my beloved alma mater, filled with students whose ACT scores are higher than speed limits, two fraternities were kicked off campus in recent memory for hazing charges. I like to think of good old Lenora, Julia, Sara and Mary, along with the rest of the founding fraternity/sorority members, descending from Heaven soon and yelling “What the hell are you doing under the guise of our organization?!”

Greek organizations’ visions and mission statements tend to be pretty vague. This ambiguity is necessary for the perpetuation and universality of these systems- for instance, “personal excellence” looks much different in 1920s Alabama than it does in 2012 New York- but often results is various interpretations of a group’s core values. This is why some sororities feel completely justified in achieving its philanthropic mission through raising a few hundred dollars a year for AIDS research, while other mandate hours of community service per member. This is why some chapters are seen as conservative and backwards thinking, while others are seen as hippie communes. Academics interpret the Constitution in different ways, and Kappa Deltas interpret Kappa Delta’s mission statement in different ways.

The problem, of course, arises when Greek organizations grossly, GROSSLY misinterpret the original intent of a fraternity or a sorority. When “fraternal integrity” somehow becomes “smuggle in seven kegs and make the pledges drink them all.” When “social success” is twisted to become “exclude members of a certain race or sexuality.” When Greek organizations stop existing to develop a member’s character and potential and start existing to fulfill the “Animal House” stereotype. Where is this line drawn? It’s not easy, and it changes over time. For instance, behavior that was once tolerated and even revered by Greeks at Northwestern, like paddling new members, is now considered outright hazing. Old Kappa Delta yearbooks feature photos of sisters in white, full-length ballgowns at formals, a creepy purity tradition that thankfully died long before I joined. Of course, there is behavior that has never, and will never, be indicative of a group’s purpose. Consider the case of George Desdunes, who was tied up by his “brothers,” forced to take shot after shot of vodka, and later died from alcohol poisoning. Tragic, disgusting, and certainly not what the founding fathers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon had in mind when they promised to “promote the highest standards of friendship, scholarship, and service for our members”

Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Cornell has nothing to do with me and my Greek experience. Nothing. The countless examples of Greek-related atrocities are examples of chapters who have gone off in the deep end. Chapters who have strayed so far from their national organization’s original vision that they probably should have been shut down decades ago. Quite simply, chapters who have “done” Greek life wrong.

Here’s the magical thing- Greek life, when “done” right, is simply marvelous. When I say “right,” I mean adhering closely to a fraternity or sorority’s original purposes that timelessly echo through a rapidly changing world. Sticking closely to those pillars of integrity, scholarship and friendship that my four homegirls at State Female Normal School had in mind, and making them play out in modern society.

I wear my letters with the understanding that my chapter has done Greek life the right way. Welcoming new members with coffee dates and Facebook friend requests, not with kegs and blood rituals. Bonding through organized trips to “Les Miserables” and watching the classic Lifetime movie “Dying to Belong,” not through actually pulling a Hilary Swank circa-1985 and climbing up a fifteen story building to impress older sisters. Creating a sisterhood where, sure, sisters can go out and drink together, but it’s friendship first and drinking second.

All around me at Northwestern, I saw friends and campus leaders wearing letters for the exact same reason- they were proud of their organization expressing those time-honored principles of friendship and benevolence in very modern ways. Sigma Chi brothers, recognizing the perpetuation of rape culture in certain fraternities, spearheaded the “Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault” (MARS) student group. Alpha Epsilon Pi raised thousands of dollars for cancer research through selling kosher hot dogs around campus (full disclosure: I love kosher hot dogs). Students from every single Greek organization on campus rose to leadership positions on campus in every single niche possible, from biomedical engineering research to Associated Student Government to aerial arts.  When Greek life is done “right,” people aren’t excluded from joining fraternities or sororities because they’re not “cool” enough- they’re excluded because they demonstrate an interest in leading the chapter down a very bad path.

I see Greek organizations much like I see Christians, albeit as a Jewish outsider. At the heart of Christianity exists genuinely honorable values of love, devotion and forgiveness. One doesn’t have to be Christian to adhere to these values, just like someone doesn’t have to go Greek to honor friendship, scholarship and philanthropy; it’s just another method of developing them.  Of course, the popularity and accessibility of this religion has allowed millions of people to twist Jesus’ name for their own selfish purposes, whether it’s blind proselytizing, denouncing gay marriage or killing their children. Do these grotesque perversions of Christian morals make the essence of Christianity a terrible idea? No. Do Christians who live by the principles of loving their neighbor and all those wonderful Biblical lessons align themselves with the Westboro Baptist Church in the slightest? Absolutely not. Should we end Christianity because of some of its more questionable followers? No, sir.

I started this manifesto with a cliché, and now I’m going to finish with one. We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The original purpose of Greek organizations was most certainly not to engage in the atrocities we see today among certain chapters. The national organizations must find the Greek chapters who are “doing Greek right,” immediately shut down the Greek chapters who are most certainly “doing Greek wrong,” and find strong, capable leaders who act in a way that would make their founders proud.

Author’s note: Nicole Collins is a 2011 Northwestern alum who enjoys drinking chai tea, stroking James Franco’s face in tabloids, and reading Miriam’s blog. She teaches 7th and 8th grade science on Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, and was once told by a student that she looks like a troll. Contact her at [email protected], especially if you’re a cute male Jew who supports comprehensive sex education and Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathons.