Depression: a guide for onlookers

A while ago a friend asked me for suggestions for a health workshop she was planning on the subject of being a mental health allie. At first I thought I had little useful to add, but it has become increasingly clear to me recently that when it comes to mental health, some people are still struggling with the basics. So here are some basics.

What is depression? It can be as complex and varied as the people experiencing it. It can be triggered by a recent life event, it can be triggered by a past childhood trauma. It can just happen and exist. It is arguably a chemical imbalance in the brain. It is not just ‘low mood’ – depression is a persistent condition where people lose the ability to experience pleasure, feel deeply inadequate and even suicidal. It can be marked by a withdrawal from the world and difficulty functioning on a day to day basis.

1. Depression is more common than you think. It is really really common. Stats vary but are somewhere in the vicinity of 1 in 5

2. Mental health is still massively stigmatised in our society. Esp in the workplace.

3. Politics. You may have neat ideas on the politics of mental illness. A prevalence of mental illness is often a sign of a society which is trying to cram people into roles and systems which are unhealthy. Women are much more likely to be diagnosed with these conditions than men. This may all be true. But when people on the front line dealing with a depressive episode, they will probably not want to hear the suggestion that they are an activist traitor for seeking treatment.

4. Depressed people sleep a lot. Its kinda par for the course. Try not to take it personally or as a rejection of you.

5. Name calling. Avoid, even in jest. ‘mad’, ‘loony’ , ‘mental’ and jokes about yr friend being incarcerated may not be welcome and may actually confirm their worst fears about the way they are seen by the world. As with any stigmatised group there is a world of difference between a member of that group using these terms and an outsider using them.

6. Outing. Depressed people may be sensitive as to who they tell about what they are experiencing (see point 2). Don’t assume parents, work colleagues and friends know about it and don’t disclose their mental health issues to yr friends as a conversation point.

7. Behaviours which help and hinder. Its a general consensus that: excercise, sunlight, social support and a good diet can be beneficial. However lots of people will self-medicate with less helpful behaviours: drink, cigarettes, alcohol and casual sex. Most of the time the depressed person probably know this is unhelpful. You can encourage the healthy behaviours but try and be a friend rather than a carer.

8) Depressed people can be annoying. They can! Miserable buggers. Just remember you may also need time out and support. don’t see the health of the person you are trying to support as your responsibility. Its not. Its theirs. You can encourage and support but this is where yr responsibility ends.

9) Depressed people are just people who happen to currently be depressed. Underneath they are still your friend, relative or lover. Depression in its most cruel and severe form can rob one of the enjoyment of life. Reminding the depressed person of what fun is and what it looks like, the pleasure in simple things and reminding them they are loved can really help with this.

10) Medication. Councillors and GP’s. Can all be helpful. Or alternatively can be like smacking yr face repeatedly into a plank of wood. Use of any of these services is a matter of personal choice.

11) Depressed people can have a tendency to make bad relationship choices, mainly because they do not see themselves as valuable or worthy of love: you can assert this is not true, but again people have to make their own mistakes.

Common pitfalls
A)Use of phrases such as ‘pull yrself together’ ‘pull yr socks up’ and variants on this theme. The oldest clichés in the book. Just don’t do it.

B) ‘if you loved me, I’d make you happy and this wouldn’t be a problem for you’. Profoundly unhelpful

C) talking about people you know who’ve swished the benefit system with claims of depression. Let’s just assume that yr friend is not trying to do this, recounting this kind of story may imply that you think yr friend is a big faker and aren’t helpful.

Further reading –
The Yellow Wallpaper- Charlotte Perkins Gillman, The Loony Bin Trip – Kate Millet, R.D. Laing – The Divided Self, Overcoming Depression – Paul Gilbert

http://www. is also a great resource


About Rachel

zinester/diy-til-i-die/love hate relationship with arts admin/girlpunkfeminist/geek
This entry was posted in mental health, new stuff, something i learnt today and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Depression: a guide for onlookers

  1. i’m not sure when point 8 became a smily face with sunnies. but i approve of the random-ness and it STAYS

  2. Michelle says:

    My damn self-medication is food. I tend to view all of my illnesses as one big knot of crapness so often address the mental and physical as a whole in conversation. My family only seem to mitigate, whether it’s the anxiety, the depression, the social ineptitude. Even the physical pain. Thanks for that. Very helpful. So, I tend to only discuss it with people who I know understand to some extent.

    Like most people, I have had vastly different experiences with the medical establishment as far as mental health is concerned varying from dismissive GPs, counsellors who don’t live in the real world, to a wonderfully understanding and compassionate GP. It takes effort and energy to find someone to help who fits, which is, unfortunately, something a lot of depressed people don’t have a whole lot of.

  3. i tend to find going to the GP’s surgery is a bit like a rubbish version of chatroulette. general practioners as a rule of thumb aren’t mental health specialists and they don’t often have the time to deal with these issues, the best they can do is offer quick fixes and referrals. occasionally you get lucky. its nice when that happens (:

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