When we are depressed, it is difficult to read and it is difficult to sleep. It is difficult to move and it is difficult to think. It is also, frustratingly, difficult to talk about being depressed, not only for the depressed person, but for the people around them. If someone says that they are depressed, it is, in some ways, quite natural to be lost for words, because, in truth, there is relatively little that anyone can say to make it better.
That’s not say that there aren’t plenty of things you shouldn’t say to someone with depression. There are the obvious ones. You shouldn’t tell them it’s all in their head. You shouldn’t tell them to cheer up. You shouldn’t tell them that they need to meditate.
I could usually tolerate people saying these things back when I had depression. It didn’t annoy me that much. What did annoy me, though, was when people asked me why I was depressed.
It happened quite often. A non-depressed person would unhelpfully point out that there were millions of people who had worse lives than me. They would then go on to correctly state that my life was littered with good things, that I was studying for a good degree at a good university, and that I had good friends and good family. Considering all this, why was I depressed? In response, I would invariably say that there wan’t really any known cause, however, this answer would often be deemed insufficient. The non-depressed person would insist that I had to know why I was depressed. It was just silly not to.
These kinds of conversations were frustrating because, often, the non-depressed person was clearly confusing sadness (the mood) with depression (the illness).
Sometimes, in life, we have these things called moods. Moods are commonplace. Most of us will be in some kind of mood every day and that mood can be called many things. It can be called happiness and it can be called sadness. It can be called apathy and it can be called amusement. It can be called devastation and it can be called delight. You can feel one mood, or two moods, or even three moods at the same time. There are not really any rules, but in general, moods make sense.
For example, if someone comes into work one day, saying that they’re feeling sad, it might be logical for their colleague to ask them why this is so. The sad colleague might then explain that their cat has just died, or that it’s January, or that their favourite character has just been callously killed off by an uncaring author. The root cause will normally be easy to identify, and the colleague’s sadness can be explained away.
Other times, in life, we have these things called illnesses. An illness can also be called anything. It can be called cancer. It can be called diabetes. It can be called flu.
However, if a colleague comes into work, saying that they have cancer or diabetes or the flu, it would be incredibly odd if another colleague then asks them why this is so. The sick colleague might then talk about the cigarettes they used to smoke, or the bad diet they used to have, or the contagious nature of influenza. However, it’s very unlikely that they’d do this, as there are any number of reasons why someone might develop these conditions, and the likelihood is that the cause is a complex mixture of both environmental and genetic factors, and more often than not, we ourselves aren’t exactly sure what the cause is.
The same goes for depression.
Sometimes, depression might seem to have a clear root cause. For example, maybe a person only starts getting depressed after a very bad thing has happened. The bad thing could be a death or a divorce. It doesn’t really matter what it is.
But even then it’s not that clear that this is the cause of their depression. What if the very bad thing that happened actually affected more than one person, and still, this person was the only one who got depressed? Can we still then say that the very bad thing caused the person’s depression? Or, instead, could it be that depression runs in this person’s family? Despite the many unknowns that surround depression, we do know that there is a genetic factor.
Or, perhaps it was that the very bad thing that happened to him was only one of the very bad things that happened to him in a series of very bad things that happened to him. As we don’t actually know what causes depression, and as we may never know for sure, a non-depressed colleague asking this person why they are depressed will not shed further light. If the non-depressed colleague really wants to know what caused this person’s depression, then they should donate to a charity that funds research in this field.
When a non-depressed person asks someone why they are depressed, the chances are that they will not mean any harm by it. They are just confusing having a mood with having an illness. As people use the terms “depressed” and “sad” interchangeably, this is an easy mistake.
But if one day, someone says they’re depressed, it is, at least in my opinion, inadvisable to ask them why this is so. If questions are really necessary, then ask them what the capital of Mongolia is, or what their plans for the weekend are, or ask them what you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question. Ask them anything but why.