The Letter I Didn’t Write

[Content note: depression, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, sexual assault]

This is a long and intensely personal post about college, which I graduated from today. I’m writing it more for myself than for you, so feel free to skip it if you come here mainly for the political rants and psychological babble.

A few weeks ago I got a Facebook invite about a book that some students were compiling. Any current Northwestern senior could contribute a letter, anonymous or not, about their four years at Northwestern, addressed either to themselves four years ago or four years from now. This fall, incoming freshman will receive a copy of the book.

I waffled for a few weeks, finally convinced myself that I had nothing to say, and let the deadline pass.

Of course, that’s not true. I had plenty to say, but I knew that if, four years ago, I had received a letter from my current self about my college experience, I would’ve packed back up and ran the fuck away. Why do that to an innocent freshman?

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

I’ve heard this for my entire life, and it’s the little voice in my head that so often keeps me silent. But usually I can ignore it, which is why this blog exists.

This time it worked. While I won’t say that I have nothing nice to say about my four years at Northwestern, most of it is not very nice. So I stayed silent.

But now it’s my graduation day, and, as with everything else in my life, I can’t fully process or move on from these four years without writing about them. Besides, this is my blog, not anyone’s book meant to provide inspiration and guidance to a new generation of Northwestern students. This space is mine, and this is the letter I didn’t write.

~~~

[Read more…]

Depression and the Lie of the “Real Self”

[Content note: depression and suicide]

Mitchell of Research To Be Done has a fantastic post up about this idea that when you’re on psychiatric medications, you’re not “the real you.” I’ll shamelessly quote about half the post:

This is just a for the record, for everyone, whether you’re talking about antidepressants or any other form of medication or life circumstances: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE “REAL YOU”.

You know why? Because HUMAN BEINGS ARE CONTEXT-DEPENDENT CREATURES.

You are the real you when you’re being flirty and charming and totally hitting it off with someone adorable. You are the real you when you’re crying on the floor of your room and wishing the world would end. You are the real you when you’re living it up on vacation and you are the real you when you’re just getting through the day at a boring job. You’re the real you when you’re on vacation and hate everything about it, and you’re the real you when you’re flying through the day at an amazing job. You are the real you when you’re at a party, and you’re the real you when you’re staying in with your cat. You are the real you when you’re drinking, when you’re high, when you’re reading, when you’re fucking, when you’re lonely, when you’re surrounded by friends, when you feel absolutely worthless, when you’re brimming with confidence, when you wish the universe would leave you alone, and when you love everything about it. You’re the real you when you’re unspeakably angry and hate everyone, and you’re the real you when you’re ecstatically in love and feeling on top of the world.

“THE REAL YOU” IS A MEANINGLESS TERM USED BY PEOPLE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW HUMAN BEINGS WORK.

I wanted to expand on that idea a bit and talk about why it’s extremely harmful to people who are suffering from mental illness.

When I was depressed, I believed that Depressed Me was The Real Me. Not only that, but I believed that my depressed view of the world was The Most Accurate View Of The World. That when I was depressed and thought that everyone hated me and that I was an alien in this world who should die because I don’t belong here, that was, in my opinion, the most authentic view I could possibly have.

A large part of me feared recovery. Cheerful people grated on me, and of course, in this optimism-fetishizing culture, I thought that the only alternative to miserable depression was peppy, bubbly cheerfulness. That, after all, was what everyone seemed to want me to be, and that felt wrong wrong wrong.

There were a lot of reasons for my belief that depression was “real” and happiness was “fake.” First of all, as I just mentioned, I had a totally skewed image of what happiness actually looked like. Many people make that same mistake, of course, and it’s only now, when I’m healthy and happy but not that outwardly cheerful, that I realize that happiness just doesn’t always look like that. Sometimes it looks like hours spent alone reading. Sometimes it looks like passionate anger at injustice, and doing something about that injustice. Sometimes it looks like writing over 1,000 words in a sudden rush of ideas and creativity. Sometimes it looks like playing footsie with a partner while we do our homework in silence. Sometimes it looks like sitting at the coffee shop with my best friend, just talking about stuff. Sometimes it looks like savoring a meal I cooked myself. Sometimes it looks like waking up early on my first day back in the city, putting money on my metrocard, taking the subway, and walking up the stairs out onto the street, awestruck every time. Sometimes it looks like the moment I received my graduate school acceptance letter. And sometimes it does look like exactly what you’d think–dancing with friends and strangers at a party, knocking back shots and laughing at our own stupidity.

A second reason I believed depression was more “genuine” was that there was definitely a bit of sour grapes going on. No matter what I did, I hadn’t been able to feel happy with myself and my life since early childhood. That’s a lot of failure for a young person. So by late adolescence I was spending a lot of time being like “FUCK YOU HAPPINESS I DIDN’T WANT YOU ANYWAY YOU’RE ALL FAKE AND BORING AND SHIT.” It seems childish, but it was probably one of the only defenses I had. If I’d really known what I was missing, really felt its absence, I’m not sure how I could’ve made it through.

Third, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, even as Western culture promotes optimism and cheerfulness and happiness as mandatory, especially for women, it simultaneously elevates misery and depression to an exalted status. There’s a stereotype of depressed people as writers or artists, people who See Humanity As It Really Is and bring those insights to us through beautiful works of art or literature, and who die alone, unappreciated, perhaps drunk in a gutter or by suicide.

For a pitifully long time, in fact, I wondered if I could ever be a Real Writer if I became happy.

In his book Against Depression, Peter D. Kramer writes:

To oppose depression too directly or completely is to be coarse and reductionistic–to miss the inherent tragedy of the human condition. And here it is not only the minor variants–the psychiatric equivalents of tennis elbow–that bear protecting. Asked about eliminating depression, an audience member may answer with reference to a novel that ends in suicide. Or it may be an artist who is held forth, a self-destructive poet. To be depressed–even quite gravely–is to be in touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity, its absurdity and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to adopt the posture of rebel and social critic. Depression is to our culture what tuberculosis was eighty or a hundred years ago: an illness that signifies refinement. Major depression can be characterized as more than illness, or less–a disease with spiritual overtones, or a necessary phase of a quest whose medical aspects are incidental.

(How can this image of the depressive exist in the same culture that stigmatizes depressives as pathetic, lazy, selfish, whiny losers? Why, you have to be depressed in the right way, of course.)

The final reason, I believe, was a property of the illness itself. The thoughts and emotions conjured by depression are so strong, so urgent, so potent that they felt more real than anything I’d ever felt before. The insights it gave me–they felt so brilliant at the time–could never come to me any other way. There was no other way to just know all these things about Life and Humanity. (This is also why I think that some of the aforementioned artists and writers might not be quite so brilliant as we may think.) When I was depressed I felt like a character in one of the Russian novels I love (where depression, incidentally, often plays a starring role). What could possibly be more genuine than this?

And during those times I’d forget how good it felt not to be depressed. I simply lost access to those memories. I wanted desperately to not be depressed anymore and I was also desperately afraid of who I would become if I were to stop being depressed. Depression skews and poisons everything. All of your memories, all of your identities, every sense you have of who you “really” are.

The result of all of this is that I felt that my depression was authentic. It was The Real Me. Recovering, especially through taking medication, would not be The Real Me.

I can’t know for sure now how that affected my eventual recovery. There are those who say that it must’ve significantly delayed it because I had to Really Want To Get Better and all that, but that’s straight-up victim-blaming bullshit. I DID want to get Better. I was just lost and confused and didn’t know what Better would even look like. And even when I didn’t want to get Better, that was a symptom of the illness itself. Depression is a feedback loop.

I do know that it made the decision to take medication (which brought me back from the brink) a lot more difficult than it needed to be. All that anxiety about potentially losing my ability to write was a waste of time and energy. Those fears that people would only like me if I was Deep and Insightful and Mysterious? They were crap.

And, anyway, here I am, nearly a year post-recovery and still writing, still being moody and weird, still doing my best not to have an overly rosy view of the world. Still ruining your fun.

But it’s deeply unjust to trick people suffering from depression into believing that they won’t be their Real Selves if they recover (especially if they recover using medication). People love to be all like “Yeah well what if anti-depressants had been around in Van Gogh’s time?” Well, maybe we’d still have his amazing art. Maybe it would look a little different. Or maybe Van Gogh would’ve done something totally different with his life and we’d never know the difference.

All I know is, no painting in the world can be so beautiful as to justify that sort of suffering.

Small Things You Can Do To Improve Mental Health In Your Community

[Content note: suicide, mental illness]

A few weeks ago Northwestern lost yet another student to suicide. There’s been pressure building all year for improved mental health services on campus, and I think that pressure will soon culminate in real, helpful changes on campus.

At the same time, some have been saying that what we need is not better mental healthcare services, but changes in campus “culture,” such as a reduction in the stigma of accessing mental healthcare and an increase in our willingness to discuss mental health which each other.

I don’t think that these things are mutually exclusive; I think we need both. People whose troubles are relatively minor will benefit from increased openness about mental health on campus without needing any improvements in mental healthcare, but those who suffer from serious mental illnesses–the kind that can contribute to suicide–need more than just supportive friends and professors. They need treatment. Right now, it’s becoming clear that many of those people are not getting the help they need.

Echoing these debates, a blog run by Northwestern students called Sherman Ave posted a piece called “A Reflection on Death, Privilege, and The College Experience.” (Sherman Ave usually sticks to humor, but this time it poignantly diverged.) The author wrote:

In writing these words and thinking these thoughts, I do not believe that a “call to action” here ends in throwing more money toward psychological services. As much as I believe that funding of psychological services at this university should be increased, I would hesitate to claim that another few thousand dollars would have stopped Alyssa Weaver and potentially Dmitri Teplov from committing suicide. Rather, I encourage everyone reading this article to think carefully about the state of those without the privilege of stable mental health.  We should seek to sympathize with members of our community instead of ignoring them for the sake of convenience. If we have the tremendous power to come together in grievance of a lost classmate, then there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be able to show the same love and solidarity for that classmate before they give up on our community.

And a commenter responded:

I agree with the need to come together to “show the same love and solidarity” to members of our community who need or want support and communication from others, but what does that practically mean? I find myself asking–how can I, as one person, contribute to a positive dialogue that moves our community towards supporting each other in the face of hardship? How do I even “identify” someone who needs my help? Or how do I make myself open to facilitating healing in my peers?

I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this. Practically speaking, changing a culture is like voting–it’s pretty rare that the actions of a single individual make an immediately noticeable difference. Westerners are used to thinking of themselves as individual agents, acting on their own and without any influence from or effect on their surrounding culture, and this is probably one of the many reasons it’s so difficult for people to even conceive of being able to make an actual impact when it comes to something like this.

You don’t have to be an activist, a therapist, or a researcher to make a difference when it comes to mental health. The following are small things almost anyone can do to help build a community where mental illness is taken seriously and where mental health is valued. Although I’m specifically thinking about college campuses here, this is applicable to anything you might call a “community”–an organization, a group of friends, a neighborhood.

1. When people ask you how you’re doing, tell them the truth.

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

2. If you see a therapist or have in the past and are comfortable telling people, tell them.

One awesome thing many of my friends do is just casually drop in references to the fact that they see a therapist into conversation. This doesn’t have to be awkward or off-topic, but it does have to be intentional. They’ll say stuff like, “Sorry, I can’t hang out then; I have therapy” or they’ll mention something they learned or talked about in a therapy session where it’s relevant. The point of this is to normalize therapy and to treat it like any other doctor’s appointment or anything else you might do for your health, like going to the gym or buying healthy food. It also suggests to people that you are someone they can go to if they’re considering therapy and have questions about it, because you won’t stigmatize them.

3. Drop casual misuse of mental illness from your language.

Don’t say the weather is “bipolar.” Don’t refer to someone as “totally schizo.” Don’t claim to be “depressed” if you’re actually just feeling sad (unless, of course, you actually are depressed). Don’t call someone’s preference for neatness “so OCD.” These are serious illnesses and it hurts people who have them to see them referenced flippantly and incorrectly. One fourth of adults will have a mental illness at some point in their life, and you might not know if one of them is standing right next to you. Furthermore, the constant misuse of these terms makes it easier for people to dismiss those who (accurately) claim to have a mental illness. If all you know about “being totally ADHD” is when you have a bit of trouble doing the dense reading for your philosophy class, it becomes easier to dismiss someone who tells you that they actually have ADHD.

4. Know the warning signs of mental illness and suicidality, and know where to refer friends who need professional help.

You can find plenty of information about this online or in pamphlets at a local counseling center. If you’re a student, find out what mental health services your campus offers. If you’re not a student, find out about low-cost counseling in your area. If you have the time, see if you can attend a training on suicide prevention (and remember that asking someone if they’re okay or if they’ve been feeling suicidal will not make them not-okay or suicidal). Being aware and informed about mental health can make a huge difference in the life of a friend who needs help. This doesn’t mean you’re responsible for people who need help or that it’s your fault if you don’t succeed in helping them–not at all. It just gives you a toolbox that’ll help you respond if someone in your community is showing signs of mental illness.

Learning about mental illness is also extremely important because it helps you decolonize your mind from the stigma you’ve probably learned. Even those who really want to be supportive and helpful to people with mental illnesses have occasionally had fleeting thoughts of “Why can’t they just try harder” and “Maybe they’re just making this up for attention.” That’s stigma talking. Even if you didn’t learn this from your family, you learned it from the surrounding culture. Studying mental illness helps shut that voice up for good.

5. Understand how social structures–culture, laws, business, politics, the media, etc.–influence mental health.

If you learned what you know about mental  health through psychology classes, your understanding of it is probably very individualistic: poor mental health is caused by a malfunctioning brain, or at most by a difficult childhood or poor coping skills. However, the larger society we live in affects who has mental health problems, who gets treatment, what kind of treatment they get, and how they are treated by others. Learn about the barriers certain groups–the poor, people of color, etc.–face in getting treatment. Learn about how certain groups–women, queer people, etc.–have been mistreated by the mental healthcare system. Find out what laws are being passed concerning mental healthcare, both in your state and in the federal government. Learn how insurance companies influence what kind of treatment people are able to get (medication vs. talk therapy, for instance) and what sorts of problems you must typically have in order for insurance to cover your treatment (diagnosable DSM disorders, usually). Pay attention to how mental illness is portrayed in the media–which problems are considered legitimate, which are made fun of, which get no mention at all.

It’s tempting to view mental health as an individual trait, and mental illness as an individual problem. But in order to help build a community in which mental health matters, you have to learn to think about it structurally. That’s the only way to really understand why things are the way they are and how to make them change.

Self-Diagnosis and Its Discontents

There’s a certain scorn reserved for people who diagnose themselves with mental illnesses–people who, based on their own research or prior knowledge, decide that there’s a decent chance they have a diagnosable disorder, even if they haven’t (yet) seen a professional about it.

I understand why psychologists and psychiatrists might find them troublesome. Nobody likes the idea of someone getting worked up over the possibility that they have a mental illness when they really don’t. Professional mental healthcare workers feel that they know more about mental illness than the general population (and, with some exceptions, they do) and that it’s their “job” to serve as gatekeepers of mental healthcare. This includes deciding who is mentally ill and who is not.

Self-diagnosis also gets a bad rap from people who have been professionally diagnosed with a mental illness. They feel that people who self-diagnose are doing it for attention or because they think that diagnosis is trendy.

This actually bothers me much more than the arguments against self-diagnosis coming from professionals. Why?

Because the claim that people who self-diagnose are just “doing it for attention” or because they think it’s “cool” is the exact same claim frequently made about people who get diagnosed professionally.

To be clear, I’m not saying that people never label themselves as mentally ill for attention. Maybe some do. Maybe a significant proportion of people who self-diagnose don’t really have a mental illness at all. I’d have to see research to know, and from my searches so far I haven’t really found much research on the phenomenon of self-diagnosis. (But I’m taking note of this for my master’s thesis someday.)

However, there’s a difference between someone who’s feeling sad for a few days and refer to themselves as “depressed,” and someone who’s been struggling for weeks, months, or years, and who has read books and articles on the subject and studied the DSM definition of the illness. The former may not even count as “self-diagnosis,” but rather as using a clinical term colloquially–just like everyone who says “oh god this is so OCD of me” or “she’s totally schizo.” (This, by the way, is wrong; please don’t do it.)

(It’s also likely the case that some people self-diagnose because they have hypochondria. However, the problem is not that they are self-diagnosing. The problem is that they have untreated hypochondria. Maybe diagnosing themselves with something else will get them into treatment, where a perceptive psychologist will diagnose them with hypochondria and treat them for it.)

Even if some people who self-diagnose are wrong, I still think that we should refrain from judging people who self-diagnose and take their claims seriously. Here’s why.

1. It gets people into treatment.

I wish we had a system of mental healthcare–and a system of social norms–in which everyone got mental health checkups just as they get physical health checkups. For that, two main things would have to change–mental healthcare would have to become affordable and accessible for everyone, and the stigma of seeing mental health professionals (whether or not one has a mental illness) would have to disappear. (There are other necessary conditions for that, too–the distrust that many marginalized people understandably have for mental healthcare would have to be alleviated, and so on.)

For now, going to see a therapist or psychiatrist is difficult. It requires financial resources, lots of time and determination, and a certain amount of risk–what if your employer finds out? What if your friends and family find out (unless they know and support you)? What will people think?

Because the barriers to seeing a professional are often high, many people need a strong push to go see one. Having a strong suspicion that you have a diagnosable mental illness can provide that push for many people, because nobody wants to go through the hassle of finding a therapist that their insurance covers (or finding a sliding-scale one if they don’t have insurance), coming up with the money to pay the deductible, taking time off work to go to the appointment, dealing with the fear of talking to a total stranger about their feelings, and actually going through with the appointment, only to be told that there’s “nothing wrong” with them.

As much as I wish things were different, the reality right now is that relatively few people go to therapists or psychiatrists unless they believe that they have a mental illness. If self-diagnosing first gets them into treatment, then I don’t want to stigmatize self-diagnosis.

2. It helps them find resources whether or not they see a professional.

In the previous point, I explained that for many people, self-diagnosing can be a necessary first step to getting treatment from a professional. In addition, once people have diagnosed themselves, they are able to seek out their own resources–books, support groups, online forums, etc.–to help them manage their symptoms. This can be extremely helpful whether or not they’re planning on getting treatment professionally.

While psychiatric labels like “depression,” “generalized anxiety,” and “ADHD” have their drawbacks, they are often necessary for finding resources that help people understand what they’re going through and help themselves feel better. If I’m at a library looking for books that might help me, asking the librarian for “books about depression” or “books about ADHD” will be much more useful than asking them for “books about feeling like shit all the time and not wanting to do anything with friends” or “books about getting distracted whenever you start work and not really having the motivation to finish any of it and it has nothing to do with laziness by the way.” Same goes for a Google search.

It’s certainly fair to be worried that people looking on their own will find resources that are unhelpful or even dangerous. But I think this is less of a problem with self-diagnosis per se, and more of a problem with the lack of scientific literacy in our society, and the lack of emphasis on skepticism when evaluating therapeutic claims. For what it’s worth, going to see a mental health professional will not necessarily prevent you from encountering quackery and bullshit of all kinds. And in any case, the blame does not lie with the people who self-diagnose and then fall for pseudoscientific scams, but with the people who perpetrate the scams in the first place.

This point is especially important given that many people will not be able to access professional mental healthcare services for various reasons. Maybe they can’t afford it; maybe they work three jobs and don’t have time; maybe they can’t find a therapist who is willing to accept the fact that they are trans*, kinky, poly, etc. Maybe they are minors whose parents are unwilling to get them into treatment. Maybe they were abused by medical professionals and cannot go back into treatment without worsening their mental health.

There are all kinds of reasons people may be unable to go and get their diagnosis verified by a professional, and most of these are tied up in issues of privilege. If you have never had to worry that a doctor or psychologist will be prejudiced against you, then you have privilege.

3. It can help with symptom management whether you have the “real” disorder or not.

At one point when my depression was particularly bad I noticed that I had some symptoms that were very typical of borderline personality disorder. For instance, I had a huge fear that people would abandon me and I would bounce back and forth between glorifying and demonizing certain people. If someone made the slightest criticism of me or wasn’t available enough for me, I would decide that they hate me and don’t care if I live or die. I had wild mood swings. That sort of thing. It’s not that I thought I actually had BPD; rather, I noticed that I had some of its symptoms and wondered if perhaps certain techniques that help people with BPD might also help me.

Luckily, at this time I was still seeing a therapist. So in my next session, I decided to mention this observation that I had made, and the conversation went like this:

Me: I’ve noticed that I have some BPD-like symptoms.
Her: Oh, you don’t have BPD.
Me: Right, but I seem to have some of its symptoms–
Her: No, trust me, I’ve worked with people with BPD and you do NOT have BPD.

I suppose I could’ve persevered with this line of thinking, but instead I felt shut down and put in my place. I dropped the subject.

So determined was this therapist to make sure that I know which mental illness(es) I do and do not have that she missed out on what could’ve been a really useful discussion. What she could’ve done instead was ask, “What makes you say that?” and allow me to discuss the symptoms I’d noticed, whether or not they are indicative of BPD or anything else other than I am having severe problems relating to people and dealing with normal life circumstances.

The point is that sometimes it’s useful to talk about mental illness not in terms of diagnoses but in terms of symptoms. What triggers these symptoms? Which techniques help alleviate them?

So if a person looks up a mental disorder online and thinks, “Huh, this sounds a lot like me,” that realization can help them find ways to manage their symptoms whether or not those symptoms actually qualify as that mental disorder.

This is especially true because the diagnostic cut-offs for many mental illnesses are rather random. For instance, in order to have clinical depression, you must have been experiencing your symptoms for at least two weeks. What if it’s been a week and a half? In order to have anorexia nervosa, you must be at 85% or less of your expected body weight*. What if you haven’t reached that point yet? What if you don’t have the mood symptoms of depression, but you exhibit the cognitive distortions associated with it? Acknowledging that you may have one of these disorders, even if you don’t (yet) fit the full criteria, can help you find out how to manage the symptoms that you do have.

4. It helps them find solidarity with others who suffer from that mental illness.

I understand why some people with diagnosed mental illnesses feel contempt toward those who self-diagnose. But I don’t believe that sympathy and solidarity are finite resources. If someone is struggling enough that they’re looking up diagnostic criteria, they deserve support from others who have been down that path, even if their problems might not be “as bad” as the ones other people have and/or have not yet been validated by a professional.

Acknowledging that you may have depression (or any other mental illness) can help you find others who have experienced various shades of the same thing and feel like you’re not alone.

My take on self-diagnosis comes from a perspective of harm reduction. The idea is that strategies that help people feel better and prevent themselves from getting worse are something we should support, even if these strategies are not “correct” or “legitimate” and do not take place within the context of established, professional mental healthcare.

We should work to improve professional mental healthcare and increase access to it, especially for people in marginalized communities and populations. However, we should also acknowledge that sometimes people may need to help themselves outside of that framework. These people should not be getting the sort of condescension and eye-rolling they often get.

~~~
*The diagnostic criteria for eating disorders are expected to improve with the release of the new DSM-V, but I’m not sure yet whether or not the 85% body weight requirement will still be there. In any case, this is how it’s been so far.

Criticizing Psychiatry Without Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

So, I read this article in The Atlantic called “The Real Problems with Psychiatry” and…I’m torn. The article is an interview with this guy Gary Greenberg, a therapist who has previously written a book called Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease and has now followed that up with The Book of Woe: The Making of the DSM-5 and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

Now, to be clear, I haven’t read either of these books. I might, just to see the full depth of his arguments. But I decided to read the interview anyway and assume that he accurately represented his own claims in it.

Parts of the interview, I think, are really on point. Greenberg discusses the history of the DSM (the manual used to diagnose mental disorders) as a way for psychiatry as a discipline to establish credibility alongside other types of medicine. He criticizes the DSM on the grounds that the mental diagnoses that we currently have may not necessary be the best way to conceptualize mental illness, and he thinks that once we gain a better understanding of the brain we will find that they have little to do with the physical reality of mental illness:

Research on the brain is still in its infancy. Do you think we will ever know enough about the brain to prove that certain psychiatric diagnoses have a direct biological cause?

I’d be willing to bet everything that whenever it happens, whatever we find out about the brain and mental suffering is not going to map, at all, onto the DSM categories. Let’s say we can elucidate the entire structure of a given kind of mental suffering. We’re not going to be able to say, “here’s Major Depressive Disorder, and here’s what it looks like in the brain.” If there’s any success, it will involve a whole remapping of the terrain of mental disorders. And psychiatry may very likely take very small findings and trump them up into something they aren’t. But the most honest outcome would be to go back to the old days and just look at symptoms. They might get good at elucidating the circuitry of fear or anxiety or these kinds of things.

I don’t know if he’s right. But I suspect that he might be.

He also makes a great point about the fact that we often assume that anyone who acts against social norms, for instance by committing a terrible crime, must necessarily be mentally ill:

It’s our characteristic way of chalking up what we think is “evil” to what we think of as mental disease. Our gut reaction is always “that was really sick. Those guys in Boston — they were really sick.” But how do we know? Unless you decide in advance that anybody who does anything heinous is sick. This society is very wary of using the term “evil.” But I firmly believe there is such a thing as evil. It’s circular — thinking that anybody who commits suicide is depressed; anybody who goes into a school with a loaded gun and shoots people must have a mental illness.

Greenberg also discusses how mental diagnoses have historically been used to perpetuate injustice, such as the infamous “disorder” of “drapetomania,” which was thought to cause slaves to try to escape their masters, and the fact that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness (and other types of sexual/gender variance still are).

He also talks a lot about how the DSM and its categories are tied in with all sorts of things: scientific research and mental healthcare coverage, for instance:

To get an indication from the FDA, a drug company has to tie its drug to a DSM disorder. You can’t just develop a drug for anxiety. You have to develop the drug for Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Major Depressive Disorder. You can’t just ask for special services for a student who is awkward. You have to get special services for a student with autism. In court, mental illnesses come from the DSM. If you want insurance to pay for your therapy, you have to be diagnosed with a mental illness.

The point about needing a DSM diagnosis in order to receive insurance coverage is really important and cannot be overstated (in fact, I wish he’d given it more than a sentence, but again, he did write books). As someone who plans to eventually practice therapy without necessarily having to formerly diagnose all of my clients, this matters to me a lot, because it may mean that I might have to choose between diagnosing and working only with clients who can afford therapy without insurance coverage (which, at at least $100 per weekly session, would really not be many).

But sometimes Greenberg makes a good point while also making a terrible point:

One of the overlooked ways is that diagnoses can change people’s lives for the better. Asperger’s Syndrome is probably the most successful psychiatric disorder ever in this respect. It created a community. It gave people whose primary symptom was isolation a way to belong and provided resources to those who were diagnosed. It can also have bad effects. A depression diagnosis gives people an identity formed around having a disease that we know doesn’t exist, and how that can divert resources from where they might be needed.

First of all, we don’t “know” that depression “doesn’t exist.” We know–or, more accurately, some of us suspect–that the diagnosis we call “major depression” might not map on very accurately to what’s actually going on in the brains of people who are diagnosed with it. What we call “major depression” is a large cluster of possible symptoms, and since you only have to have some of them in order to be diagnosed, two people with the exact same diagnosis could have almost completely different symptomology. Further, because depression can vary like a spectrum in its severity, the cut-off point for what’s clinical depression and what’s not can be rather arbitrary. It’s not like with other types of illnesses, where either you have a tumor or you don’t, either you have a pathogen in your bloodstream or you don’t.

Second, Greenberg doesn’t seem to extend his analysis of the effects of the Asperger’s diagnosis onto other disorders. There is absolutely a community of people who have (had) depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and so on. Those communities are absolutely valuable. My life would be demonstrably worse without these communities. They haven’t “diverted resources” from anything other than me wallowing in self-pity because I feel like I’m the only person going through these things–which is how I used to feel.

Right after that:

What are the dangers of over-diagnosing a population? Are false positives worse than false negatives?

I believe that false positives, people who are diagnosed because there’s a diagnosis for them and they show up in a doctor’s office, is a much bigger problem. It changes people’s identities, it encourages the use of drugs whose side effects and long-term effects are unknown, and main effects are poorly understood.

Greenberg is correct that false positives are a problem and that diagnosing someone with a mental illness that they do not have can be very harmful. However, his dismissiveness of the problem of false negatives–people who do have mental illnesses but never get diagnosis or treatment–is stunning coming from someone who is a practicing therapist. Untreated mental illnesses are nothing to mess around with. They can lead to death, by suicide or (in the case of eating disorders) otherwise. Even if things never get to that point, they can ruin friendships, relationships, marriages, careers, lives. While I get that Greenberg has an agenda to push here, some acknowledgment of that fact would’ve been very much warranted.

In short, Greenberg seems to make the logical leap that many critics of psychiatry and the DSM do; that is, because there is much to criticize about them and because it’s unclear how valid the DSM diagnoses are, therefore depression is “a disease that we know doesn’t exist” and antidepressants are harmful (that’s a whole other topic, though).

Antidepressants may very well be harmful. Diagnostic labels may also very well be harmful, for some people. But I think the stronger evidence is that untreated mental suffering is harmful, and sometimes therapy just isn’t enough and cannot work quickly enough–for instance, for someone who is severely depressed to the point that they can’t possibly use any of the insights they may gain in therapy, or to the point that they are about to commit suicide.

I hope that one day we’ll have all the answers we need to minimize both false negatives and false positives. But for now, we don’t, and I worry that attitudes like Greenberg’s may prevent people from getting the help they urgently need, as much as they may simultaneously promote vital criticism and analysis of psychiatry and the DSM.

~~~

Note: I didn’t fact-check everything Greenberg said in the interview because I’m hoping that The Atlantic employs fact-checkers. But if you have counter-evidence for anything in that article, even parts I didn’t quote here, please let me know.

Living With Depression: Strength

[Content note: depression]

Half a year ago I started a series of posts about living with depression in order to help people understand what it’s like to have it beyond just the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. Then I moved to FtB and got super intimidated and didn’t want to write it anymore. But now I have writer’s block and I’m feeling too overwhelmed by everything going on in the world so I’m going to write about myself.

It’s not meant to reflect anyone’s experience but my own, although I’m sure plenty of people will identify with it. If things were completely different for you and you feel comfortable sharing, the comments section’s all yours.

The two previous posts, if you’re curious, were about trust and openness.

For many people, both sufferers and non-, depression is primarily a lack of strength.

Emotional strength, that is. When you hear people call depression a “weakness,” consider the fact that the opposite of “weakness” is “strength,” and you’ll see exactly what they think is lacking in those who suffer from it. Of course, enlightened as depression sufferers supposedly are about their own illness, most of us fall into the same trap at some point.

Because on the surface, depression really can look like a lack of strength. For many years, at the slightest sign of misfortune or difficulty–a bad grade, a rude remark from someone–my entire mental composure would crumple like a dry leaf you crush in your hand. Imagine going to the gym and trying to lift one of the lightest weights they have, but you drop it and collapse in a heap on the floor. That’s approximately the physical equivalent of how it feels, with all the humiliation and self-blame involved.

In reality, of course, it has nothing to do with weakness or strength. It’s an illness. It’s not your fault. (It’s not a “chemical imbalance,” by the way, as someone would usually say right about now, but it’s not a weakness either.)

But, honestly, most days I can’t internalize that knowledge, no matter how many courses I take and articles I read. I feel weak.

Anyway, my solution to this for a while was to try to present a false persona that is strong, competent, and detached. I spent a lot of time furiously pretending not to care about things, because that’s what I thought strength was. It never worked. I’m sure people saw through it, and besides, the thing with depression is that often you can’t fake your way out of it. The pain and emotions it causes are too powerful to hide. It’s like the difference between not letting it show on your face when you’ve stubbed your toe, and not letting it show on your face when you’ve fractured your leg in three places. People are gonna be able to tell. No matter what.

And that inability to hide what I felt was private, shameful, and weak was probably the worst way I’d ever felt like I failed myself. Worse than not liking college, worse than having to drop journalism, worse than not getting (or having to decline) a slew of coveted internships and other opportunities. In the endless parade of personal failures to which I am a constant, unwilling spectator, failing to be “mentally strong” is the absolute worst.

So what about physical strength, then?

It’ll probably come as no surprise (as I’m sure I’m far from the only person who does this) that I use physical strength and competence as a way to distract from and make up for the emotional strength that, despite everything I know about depression, I still feel I do not have.

I’ve been doing that for as long as I can remember. I used ballet that way when I used to dance, from when I was 6 years old until I was 15. Then I switched to marching band, which you may think isn’t hard until you’ve done it. During the off-season I’d bike or walk pretty long distances or go to the gym or exercise at home. Of course, all that was irrevocably tainted by the fact that I had massive body image issues and eating habits that at times were very unhealthy, but I do remember the difference between wanting to lose weight and wanting to be strong. I haven’t always wanted to lose weight, but I’ve always, always wanted to be strong.

(Of course, physical strength is a gendered trait, and the gender that we usually associate it with is male. That means that we think of physical strength as being able to lift a whole lot of pounds–with your arms, that is–and it means that my male friends scoff at how pathetically I compare to them in that department. Of course, I just smile and roll my eyes, because I’d love to see them sit calmly in the splits for 15 minutes while reading a book, or twirl on the toes of one foot. Whatever.)

Partially, I like being strong for the same reasons anyone else does–it feels good, it’s useful, it keeps you healthier. But also, it allows me to shape my body in the way I’ve never managed to shape my mind. Getting physically strong requires a lot of effort, sure, but everyone knows exactly how it’s done. I don’t know how to stop being so emotionally nonresilient. I only know that sometimes I go months without any problems, and then suddenly, for no reason, I start crumpling again.

Muscles don’t work that way. You work them out, and they get stronger. You don’t work them out, and they eventually get weaker. You know which exercises work out which muscles. You know that if muscles are sore, you gave them a good workout. (I say this as I can barely walk for the third day in a row because of this thing I did with my calves, so there ya go).

If I were able to afford a therapist who could actually help (as opposed to the ones that I’ve had, who did not), maybe I’d eventually become emotionally strong. But for now I’ve mostly given up. The only thing that works when I feel weak is simple distraction, but the more tired and overwhelmed I am and the more mental effort I’ve already exerted on other things, the harder distraction gets.

But when I feel strong physically, it makes up for not feeling strong emotionally. Just a little bit.

Lessons I Learned From Depression

[Content note: depression]

People struggling with mental illness (or any sort of illness, or anything crappy, really) are constantly exhorted by well-meaning people to find the “silver lining” in their experience. This often takes the form of tropes about “learning who your real friends are” or “learning how to fully appreciate life” or “understanding what’s really important in life” and on and on.

For a long time I resisted the entire notion of finding “lessons” or “learning opportunities” in my decade-long struggle with depression. (Yes, decade-long. Yes, I’m 22.) Part of this was because the people who demanded that I do so were just so damn annoying, frankly. No, I will not spin you a convenient story about What Depression Has Taught Me to make you feel better when you see my tears or my scars.

But mostly I resisted because I felt that admitting that I’ve learned things from this experience requires intentionally forgetting the fact that most of it had no meaning. There is no meaning to losing half of your life to something you can’t even see or prove to people or sometimes even describe in words. There is no meaning to having most of the memories of your life discolored, blurred, and tainted by a misery and terror that had no name. This is not the stuff of inspirational memoirs or films. While some people suffer for political causes or for their children or in order to produce a great work of art, I suffered for absolutely no reason at all.

But, of course, I did learn some things. Maybe I would’ve learned them even if I’d had a more normative emotional experience, but right now it really seems like I learned them as a result of being so miserable a lot of the time. And while I reserve a very special fury for those who implore us to create meaning out of meaningless suffering and produce “lessons” and “silver linings” and “bright sides” carefully repackaged for their consumption, I think these are lessons that are worthwhile to share.

I am not my GPA, weight, debt, scars.Lesson 1: Not everything your brain tells you is accurate.

Most people, I think, go through life without giving much thought to whether or not their perceptions are providing them with the most accurate possible picture of reality. But sometimes our brains are pretty crappy at this. Of course, I would’ve learned that without the help of depression, because I study psychology. So I’ve known for a while about stuff like the fundamental attribution error, the halo effect, anchoring, confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the false-consensus effect, the just-world hypothesis, in-group favoritism, the hot-hand fallacy, the Lake Wobegon effect, status quo bias, and all sorts of other biases, fallacies, and errors.

But what really brought it home was depression. While the cognitive errors I’ve listed are generally adaptive and keep people happier, depression was the opposite. Instead of telling me that people like me despite evidence to the contrary, my cognitive distortions told me that everyone hates me despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than telling me that I’m above-average in most things, they told me that I’m below-average in most things. On any given day I would invariably feel like the stupidest, ugliest, least likable, most worthless person alive. True story.

At some point it occurred to me that I would never recover if I didn’t learn how to treat what my brain said with a healthy amount of skepticism. So I started to. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the time in my life when my political views evolved the most, because I also started challenging my knee-jerk reactions to various issues in our society.) Of course, this is a lesson that is not limited to folks with mental illnesses, because everyone’s brain does this to them at some point. For many people, including some of those who proudly label themselves “skeptics,” thinking critically about what happens inside one’s brain does not come nearly as easily as thinking critically about what happens out there in the world.

So, for me, this meant a lot of time spent repeating to myself, “Yes, I feel like Best Friend hates my guts, but that’s just a feeling and it’s not necessarily true” and “Yes, not getting that internship makes me feel like I’m a complete failure who will never amount to anything in her chosen field, but that’s just my brain lying to me again” and “Yes, Partner wants to see their friends rather than me tonight, but this doesn’t mean that Partner doesn’t care about me and doesn’t want to keep seeing me anymore.”

Pause, rewind, repeat, and there you have my recovery.

Lesson 2: Your feelings are valid.

Does this seem like a contradiction to the previous lesson? It’s not. Unfortunately, when confronted with the apparently irrational emotions of others, many people immediately jump to the conclusion that those emotions are WRONG. (These people should never try to be therapists.)

However, just because someone’s emotions do not seem like a “rational” response to what they’re going through, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for them. That reason can be whichever complicated and still-misunderstood brain processes cause depression. It can be that those are the emotions they saw expressed in their families growing up, and learned to mimic at an early age. It can be that last time this sort of thing happened, it ended terribly and now they’re freaking out over this seemingly minor thing because it could end that badly again. It can be that what’s currently happening to them is reminding them of something else entirely.

Or it could be for any number of other reasons that you do not know, and that the person having the “irrational” feelings might not know either. So why assume?

It’s important to remember, too, that there tends to be a pattern to the emotions we decide are “irrational” and “inappropriate” in others. Anger from a woman or a person of color is perceived differently than anger from a white man. Sadness from a woman is perceived differently than sadness from a man. Archetypes like the Angry Black Man and the Hysterical Woman are sometimes so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice ourselves applying them.

But all emotions are valid. Some are less adaptive than others, some we want to change, some can contribute to unacceptable behavior if we don’t address them, yes. But they’re all valid, and telling others (or ourselves) that some emotions are not okay to have doesn’t help in changing them.

Lesson 3: Sometimes you have to keep your mental health in mind when making decisions.

This is the one I’ve resisted the most. I had to quit studying journalism because it was giving me panic attacks, and I chose not to pursue a PhD in part because I didn’t think I could handle it emotionally (well, and because the thought of it just bored me). When it comes to my personal life, my mental health is a big part of the reason I gave up monogamy, although I’m now glad I did for many other reasons. It’s also part of the reason I never studied abroad, gave up many other opportunities, and chose to move to NYC.

When I first started to realize that mental health is a factor that I need to consider when making decisions about my academic, professional, and personal life, I felt abandoned and betrayed by my own brain. I understood intuitively that sometimes you can’t do things because they require physical traits or abilities that you lack or because you don’t have the cognitive skills or because you just lack access to those opportunities. But to have all those things and still give something up just because my brain doesn’t like it? That seemed ridiculous.

In fact, that way of thinking is just an extension of the stigma of mental illness. Just as we think that mental illness isn’t really “real,” we think that mental health isn’t really important. It’s reasonable, we think, to choose not to live in Florida because you can’t deal with the weather or to choose not to go running because it’s too hard on your knees or to choose not to be a physicist because you can’t do math worth a shit, but not getting a PhD because grad school would make your depression relapse? Not being a journalist because interviewing people gives you panic attacks? Not studying abroad because being away from people you love makes you suicidal? What the hell is up with that. Just deal with it.

So for a long time I did stuff that made me miserable because I was fighting so hard against the notion that mental health is something you need to take care of and cultivate, just as you would with your physical health. But one of the most important things I’ve learned how to do in college is knowing when to say “no” to things that sound fantastic but might break down the levees I’ve built up to keep the depression from flooding in.

Of course, sometimes it still makes me furious. I recently gave up a great opportunity for that reason; I badly wanted to do it but every time I thought about actually doing it, and the sacrifices it would entail, I broke down, sobbing, paralyzed, unable to say yes or no to it. Eventually I finally turned it down, full of resentment at myself and my useless brain, but trying to understand that my reason was a good one and that I deserve permission to make this choice.

Now, naturally, there are those who would tell me to Just Do It! and Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone! and blabbityblahblah, but those people will just have to trust me when I say that I know the potential dangers much better than they do. Mental illness is a whole ‘nother ballgame. When I want to Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! I try getting to know someone new or reading something I disagree with that makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I move to NYC, I can Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! by joining new groups or going to events where I don’t know people and seeing what happens.

That’s getting out of my comfort zone. Ignoring the fact that I have important needs when it comes to my mental health, though, is not “brave” or “spontaneous” or “gutsy.” It’s just irresponsible, just as it would be irresponsible go ride a motorcycle without a helmet or to not wash my hands during flu season.

So give yourself permission to treat your mental health with the care and concern it deserves. Of course, you might be aware that doing something could make your mental health worse and choose to do it anyway for any number of reasons, and that’s completely fine, too.

But so many of us struggle merely to accept the idea that it’s okay not to do things for the sole reason that they might worsen our mental health, and that’s something we have to overcome.

It's okay not to be okay.

All These Years I Thought I Was Just Lazy

[Content note: eating disorders/weight loss stuff]

My arms are on fire. When I woke up this morning I felt the burn immediately. I’ve been stretching and moving them around all day, simultaneously wincing and savoring the feeling because it tells me that I’m getting stronger.

I’m on spring break right now and have been taking advantage of the sudden free time by going to the gym every day. It may not sound like a big deal, but for me it is–with the exception of a few random workouts, I’ve been largely avoiding the gym for at least three years.

When I was in high school it was a different story. Back then going to the gym was punishment. I felt that I’d done a lot of things that I deserved to be punished for; not looking right being the main one. I was furious with myself because no amount of exercise seemed to be enough to make me look the way I wanted to, so I combined that with brief spurts of severe caloric restriction. That didn’t help, either. I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of hunger.

So I went to the gym and took my fury out on my body. At least, that’s how it felt to me psychologically. In reality, of course, exercise within reason is good for you. But I couldn’t feel that. Working out for me was only about two things: 1) losing weight, and 2) punishing myself for not losing enough weight quickly enough.

Then I stopped. Partially because I got too busy to make it to the gym, but also because I realized that, at the time, the only way to recover would be to give up on exercise for a while. I still did stuff like walking, swimming, and biking in the summers, but that was only because I find that stuff fun, not because I was trying to work out.

And, to be sure, whenever I attempted exercise for its own sake, I quickly fell back into my old mentality of “needing” to lose weight at all costs. Along with exercising came calorie counting, bending over naked to assess the gap between my thighs, pinching my stomach mindlessly while sitting in class and trying to hide it, freaking out when my jeans came out of the wash a bit too tight, dreading buying new clothes, and on and on and on.

So I’d inevitably stop going to the gym after a few days. When it feels like that, it’s not at all worth it.

But when spring break started a few days ago, I decided to try it one more time. And this time, it worked.

This time I look forward to it. This time I keep eating whatever the fuck I want. This time I don’t even touch the scale in the locker room. This time I don’t tell people about my workouts if I know they’re going to preemptively congratulate me on the weight I’m going to lose. This time I get to do the exercises I feel like doing, not the ones that burn the most calories. This time I get to do what I thought was impossible–see exercise as a treat, not a punishment.

And let me tell you something. I am fucking furious that this–the ability to feel such joy and pleasure from exercising, to focus on how my body feels rather than how it looks–was taken away from me for so many years. I don’t mean literally taken away. Nobody forbade me from choosing to exercise because it’s good for you. But the way we talk about exercise, both among the people I knew and in our culture in general, precluded that. It’s almost like we lack the language to talk about working out without also talking about losing weight.

And when I go to the gym now and see signs advertising personal training programs to make you “Lose X Pounds in Just Y Weeks!”, it makes me sad. Not because it affects me anymore, but because I know what it’s like to walk into the gym and know in the back of your mind that you are there for that reason only. Not because you’ll feel good. Not because you’ll sleep better at night. Not to feel your muscles ache the morning after. Not to finally be able to run a marathon or bike to work every day without being exhausted or just so that you never have to ask anyone to help you carry things. Not to make friends with people who like doing the same stuff you do. Not because it helps keep depression at bay. Not even because it’s a better way to pass the time than sitting around looking out the window.

Only, only to watch the numbers slip further and further, not even knowing when you want them to stop.

For all these years I thought I didn’t exercise because I’m lazy and pathetic. I never thought to ask myself why someone who somehow has the wherewithal to do well at a competitive university and write 1000-word blog posts several times a week suddenly finds hidden reserves of laziness whenever the question of exercise comes up.

I wasn’t lazy. I straight-up didn’t want to, because I’d never found a way to think about exercise, let alone actually do it, without feeling waves of shame, inadequacy, boredom, and misery.

Now I have. Maybe because enough time has finally passed, or because of feminism, or because of the fantastic friends I have who work out and make it clear that for them, it’s got nothing to do with weight.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m not hoping to lose weight at all, or that I won’t be at least a little bit happy if it happens. I’m not sure that’ll ever completely get out of my system. But even if I lose absolutely zero pounds, it won’t feel like working out is all for nothing. If a doctor told me right now that there is absolutely no chance that I’ll lose any weight given how I’m exercising and eating, I’d keep doing it anyway.

Two years ago, I would not have done the same thing.

For me, personally, that’s as close as it gets to silencing the countless voices telling us to be thin and perfect. That’s as close as it gets to declaring victory.

Does Telling People to “Think Positive” Actually Help? An Informal Survey and Some Protips

Positive thinking is the bane of my existence. Not because I can’t do it, but because I’ve so often been exhorted to do it in the most unhelpful of ways. I’m someone who prefers to talk mostly about the neutral or negative aspects of my life to friends and family because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, which probably leads people to assume that I have difficulty “thinking positively” (and I wouldn’t blame them). Of course, during periods of depression, positive thinking is mostly impossible, but when I’m feeling relatively healthy I’m actually quite optimistic.

Point is, I’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice to “think positive!” and “look on the bright side!” and “just try to find the silver lining!” Chances are, I’ve either done that already, or I’m not going to be able to do it no matter how many times one tells me to.

So despite the fact that I’m actually quite adept at finding reasons to be hopeful and getting good things even out of bad situations, being told to do so, even though it’s almost always well-meaning, usually rubs me the wrong way. Like, what, you don’t think that “thinking positively” occurred to me? And for that matter, when you tell people to “think positively,” does anyone ever go, “Oh wow, I didn’t even realize I could do that! Thanks so much!”?

And yet thinking positively helps me, and it must help many other people or else people would quit telling each other to do it. I wanted to find out more about the contexts in which people find it helpful to be reminded to “think positive” versus the ones in which they don’t, so I did an extremely informal survey of my online friends and followers. I basically asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Does it ever help you to be told to ‘think positive’?”

Disclaimer: This is not “research,” this is just me asking people I know about their opinions. Maybe if I’d gone for that PhD after all, you’d be reading about this in Science someday, but that’s not going to happen.

Some people said that it doesn’t help at all:

Nope. I find it helpful when people genuinely ask thoughtful questions and then actively listen. Pat answers are a brush off, nothing more.

No. Usually it just makes me feel like I have to shut up now because the person is done listening.

I think just saying “think positive” is a limiting concept since it doesn’t teach anyone how to change negative self talk to positive.

“Think positive” as a general suggestion can actually be harmful – it doesn’t enable its recipient to solve a problem any more than they were before, and can easily lead to an affected individual thinking they’re at fault for being unable to fix something simply by failing to think positively.

“Just think positive” almost always comes couched with The Secret or other metaphysics bullshit in my life. Sooooo I cringe whenever I hear it.

I also don’t think it helps, but for me it’s because it feels like an invalidating thing to say. I’d rather my feelings be acknowledged for their authenticity than be dismissed for not being all sunshine and rainbows like they “should” be.

Telling myself to think positively also occasionally helps, but not always. Other people telling me that does not generally help, particularly since if someone is telling me “just think positive” it’s usually in the context of, I’ve told them some specific problem I’m worrying about and they’ve given me “think positive” as a non-answer.

not when by someone who lacks knowledge of my life and circumstances. Not when I’m clinically depressed, at all.

I’ve never found it helpful, and now I understand that the reason I’ve always found it so upsetting is that the statement comes from a place of neurotypical privilege. My visceral response is almost always “Don’t you think I’ve TRIED THAT ALREADY. Seriously, if it were that simple I would FEEL BETTER.”

I think the logic behind “think positive” and “look on the bright side” are, er, “positive” alternatives to “you like being sad.” They all stem from this idea that is it the person’s own doing, that it is something the individual can control but isn’t trying hard enough, etc. But real depression and anxiety are caused by something beyond the individual’s ability to control.

There aren’t enough characters here for all the four-letter words.

A few said it does:

Certainly. I usually have negative expectations, and have to be reminded to consider positive outcomes. Otherwise, I’d never try anything.

In a really weird way it can me. Like it pisses me off, but it’s a good reminder at the same time.

The majority, however, gave an answer that was basically either “Yes, but” or “No, unless.” And these people generally hit on the same basic point:

It has, if people point out *actual* positive things about the situation.

Yes, but not if they are being dismissive. If they are like, “what about x, and y” then yes. But dismissive, NO.

It can sometimes be helpful to be reminded OF something good, but it doesn’t really help just to be told “look on the bright side.”

It depends entirely on who’s saying it to me. Like if my bestie tells me to chin up it’s entirely different then some random ass fuck

Not as a general statement, no. What has occasionally helped is if someone breaks down a situation and specifically outlines possible positive outcomes – but you can’t just think your way to them.

Although I have found it helpful to try to find the positive aspect in a bad situation, and if I find one I will point it out (especially if the “bright side” is actually black humor), telling people to just generally look on the bright side of life is horse hockey.

Only if they’ve got evidence that says I should. Saying that emptily just sounds like “smile, emo kid!” #ThingsThatDrainMyPacifism

Sometimes, especially if it’s offered along with an example of a silver lining I may have overlooked.

These aren’t nearly all of the responses, but looking through these and the others I got, I hit upon a few major themes that may help you discern whether or not telling someone to “think positive” is worthwhile:

1. Mental Illness

One of the worst things about disorders like depression and anxiety is that they rob you of your ability to be hopeful and think positively. It’s not that you’re not trying, it’s that you can’tSo, when someone’s dealing with sadness, stress, pessimism, etc. that’s brought on by a mental illness as opposed to just “faulty” thinking, telling them to “fix” their thinking isn’t going to be helpful.

2. Proof

Many people said that being advised to think positively helps when they’re actually given “proof” that there’s something to think positively about. Otherwise it just sounds like an empty platitude; if the person who’s telling you to “think positive” can’t even come up with a reason why, that’s not reassuring.

3. Closeness

It feels different to be told to “think positive” by someone who actually knows you very well than, as one person said, by “some random ass fuck.” Although nobody elaborated on why, I can think of several reasons. It’s easier to trust that someone who knows you well generally wants to help you rather than to just get you to stop talking about sad stuff. Someone who knows you well is also more likely to know what helps you. They’re also more likely to actually understand your situation, making advice to “think positive” sound much less flippant than it would otherwise.

In general, telling people to “just think positive” has the same problems as, for instance, telling people to just stop being hurt by bigoted comments or to just learn to keep saying no to persistent unwanted sexual advances: it doesn’t actually help them to do these things. Changing the way you think and feel isn’t like flipping a switch. It requires hard work and practice, just like learning a language or a musical instrument.

Generally that’s a job for a therapist or perhaps a really good self-help book, but if you’d like to help facilitate that process for someone, here are some scripts to help them learn to think more positively without doing the annoying and dismissive “Just look on the bright side!” thing:

  • “That sounds like a tough situation to be in. Is there anything you could do that would make it easier right now?”
  • “Do you think anything good can come of this?”
  • “I’m sorry, that really sucks, but just know that I/your friends/your family will be here to support you.”
  • “Would it help if we went out and did something fun to help you get your mind off of it?”
  • “I know it seems pretty awful right now, but I think you will come out a stronger person because of this.”

Note that these don’t work for everyone and are very dependent on the situation, so use your best judgment. But these are all things that have really helped me to hear at one point or another. And notice that a lot of them involve asking, not telling. Don’t tell people to think positively or do something to get their mind off of it; ask them if they’re able or willing to.

And as with all things emotional, affirming whatever the person is feeling right now is the most important thing. Even if it’s negative! Their emotions are valid even if you don’t understand them or think that they’re productive.

Blaming Everything On Mental Illness

The Associated Press has revised their AP Stylebook, the guide that most journalists use to standardize their writing, to include an entry on mental illness. Among many other important things that the entry includes, which you should read here, it says:

Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.

And:

Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.

That first one is important because there is a tendency, whenever a person who has done something wrong also happens to have a mental illness, to attempt to tie those two things together.

Some things I have seen people (and, in some cases, medical authorities) try to blame on mental illness:

  • being violent
  • being religious
  • being an atheist
  • abusing children
  • spending money unwisely
  • raping people
  • stealing
  • bullying or harassing people
  • being upset by bullying and harassment
  • enjoying violent video games
  • being shy
  • being overly social
  • being too reliant on social approval
  • having casual sex
  • being into BDSM
  • not being interested in sex
  • dating multiple people
  • not wanting to date anyone
  • not wanting to have children
  • being attracted to someone of the same sex
  • being trans*
  • wanting to wear clothing that doesn’t “belong” to your gender

You’ll notice that these things run the gamut from completely okay to absolutely cruel. Some of them involve personal decisions that affect no one but the individual, while others affect others immeasurably. All of them are things that we’ve determined in our culture to be inappropriate on varying levels.

That last one, I believe, explains why these things (and many others) are so often attributed to mental illness. It is comforting to believe that people who flout social norms, whether they’re as minor as wearing the wrong clothing or as severe as abusing and killing others, do so for individual reasons or personal failings of some sort. It’s comforting because it means that such transgressions are the acts of “abnormal” people, people we could never be. It means that there are no structural factors we might want to examine and try to change because they contribute to things like this, and it means that we don’t have to reconsider our condemnation of those behaviors.

It’s easier to say that people who won’t obediently fit into one gender or the other are “sick” than to wonder if we’re wrong to prescribe such strict gender roles.

It’s easier to say that a mass shooter is “sick” than to wonder if we’ve made it too easy to access the sort of weapons that nobody would ever need for “self-defense.”

It’s easier to say that a rapist is “sick” than to wonder if something in our culture suggests to people over and over that rape isn’t really rape, and that doing it is okay.

It’s easier to say that a bully is “sick” than to wonder why we seem to be failing to teach children not to torment each other.

It’s easier to say that a compulsive shopper is “sick” than to wonder why consuming stuff is deemed so important to begin with.

Individual factors do exist, obviously, and they are important too. Ultimately people have choices to make, and sometimes they make choices that we can universally condemn (although usually things aren’t so black and white). Some things are mental illnesses, but even mental illnesses do not exist in some special biological/individual vacuum outside of the influence of society. In fact, in one of the most well-known books on sociology ever published, Émile Durkheim presents evidence that even suicide rates are influenced by cultural context.

In any case, it’s an understandable, completely human impulse to dismiss all deviant behaviors as the province of “mentally ill” people, but that doesn’t make it right.

It’s wrong for many reasons. It dilutes the concept of “mental illness” until it is almost meaningless, leading people to proclaim things like “Well everyone seems to have a mental illness these days” and dismiss the need for more funding, research, and treatment. It leads to increased stigma for mental illness when people inaccurately attribute behaviors that are universally accepted as awful, like mass shootings, to it. It causes those who have nothing “wrong” with them, such as asexual, kinky, and LGBTQ people, to keep trying to “fix” themselves rather than realizing that it’s our culture that’s the problem. It prevents us from working to change the factors that are actually contributing to these problems, such as rape culture, lack of gun control, and consumerism, because it keeps these factors invisible from us.

People disagree a lot regarding the role of the media in society. Should it merely report the facts as accurately as possible, or does it have a responsibility to educate people and promote change? Regardless of your stance on that, though, I think most people would agree that the media should at the very least do no harm. Blaming everything from murder to shyness on mental illness absolutely does harm, which is why I’m happy to see the Associated Press take a stand against it.

That said, it’s not enough for journalists to stop attributing everything to mental illness. The rest of us have to stop doing it too.