Everyone’s experience with depression is different, and that’s what makes it difficult to talk about or advise on. Even when you have an idea of what depression is like, or personal experience with it, you can’t speak for everyone.
Sometimes, it manifests as anger or frustration that things are happening in your head that you can’t control. Sometimes, it manifests as an exhaustion, an emotional emptiness that can never be filled. Sometimes, it manifests as an acute anxiety, a keen awareness that something is wrong and it will never be right. I think the one thing that brings depression and its various expressions together is a keen emotional distress that makes it very difficult to deal with the world as it is.
A lot of people who suffer from depression don’t have the words to describe what is happening to them — either because it’s really difficult to understand your own emotions in that state, or coming up with a way to make other people understand is so hard and you’re already so drained. And it can be incredibly difficult if you’re a friend or loved one of someone going through a depressive episode; you want to help, but you have no idea what to do. This can be especially true for those of us trying to help someone online, where we can’t be physically present with them.
For so many people who suffer from depression and mental illness, their friends and loved ones, words are all we have to help (or hurt). That’s what this entire week has been about — the importance of using our words to deal with this issue. Words — even well-meaning ones — that come from a place of ignorance or misunderstanding can be devastating. We have the power to use our words to alleviate the suffering of those in our community who are most vulnerable, and most in need of assistance. While we have the right to say whatever we want however we want to say it, we also have the responsibility to address any negative consequences those words have had. And, where possible, spread knowledge and compassion that contributes to a culture of support, not judgement.
It really matters to me that we understand this, because knowing how important the power of words can be to someone in a bad place will hopefully encourage us to use those words to the best possible effect. That’s all I want.
I can speak about my personal experience with depression and suicide, and how I’ve recovered from it. I can talk about the things that have helped me in my lowest points. But I’m just one data point. I know there are a lot of other people out there who have different experiences, and I want to hear from you, too. What’s helped? What hasn’t? What would you say to friends who have been at a loss to know what to do?
For now, here are a few things that I think will help us deal with mental health issues. I’d really love to hear from others with suggestions on what to add to the list.
LISTEN, ACTIVELY. Sometimes, people in the throes of depression just want to know that there is someone who understands their problems and how it makes them feel. If a depressed person comes to us with a litany of problems, it’s not necessarily for an attempt to solve them. It’s just “These are all of the things going wrong with me; this is why I feel like there’s no way for me to feel better. I feel miserable.”
Sometimes this might not even be the root cause of their depression. It’s like clearing an attic full of old boxes, looking for that one thing you’ve buried there years ago. Folks looking for the cause of their issues need to sift through a lot of stuff before they find something that looks like the reason they feel worthless, or hopeless, or fundamentally broken. Active listening can be the thing that helps to continue that process; just being present, accepting and understanding their feelings, knowing that they’re in a safe space to do more.
START WITH THE BASICS. Depression, at least for me, made it extremely difficult to do the basic things I needed to do to care for myself. I wouldn’t eat. I wouldn’t bathe. I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning online, looking for anything that made me feel better. I know now that sitting in my own funk and hunger deprived of sleep really didn’t help things at all, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time.
If we’re in a position at all to give advice or help someone who’s depressed directly, I’d recommend starting with these small and simple things. Encourage them to eat well, get enough sleep, keep themselves clean. Doing these basic things can help break the cycle of destructive thoughts and give us a sense of control about *something*, which is a small but important step up from rock bottom.
SEEK KNOWLEDGE, SPREAD KNOWLEDGE. Mental health issues are easily misunderstood. It’s true that some people take on a self-diagnosis as an excuse for poor or anti-social behavior, but I think it’s much more common that people suffer from issues they aren’t even aware of. Depression, anxiety disorder, and a whole host of issues affect a large number of people who don’t know the symptoms or don’t even have access to medical care. Even those of us who have been diagnosed can have a poor understanding of exactly how our brains are misbehaving.
It’s not feasible for all of us to become psychologists, but attaining a working knowledge about depression and other issues affecting our friends can be tremendously helpful. Doing our best to spread knowledge — while respecting each person’s individual experience — can help to remove many of the common, most-entrenched misunderstandings about the people who suffer from mental issues. Signal-boosting resources can put professional help in the hands of people who have no idea where to turn.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS. I will fully admit to being an extremely difficult person to deal with during my worst bouts of depression. I have been paranoid, lashed out at people who don’t deserve it, and very needy. There are people who have had to walk away from me for their own well-being while I was in this state, and while I was hurt and confused at the time I totally understand the action now that I’m on a more even keel.
This can be a very difficult thing to do, but if someone with mental health issues is threatening your own emotional well-being it might be best to pull away a bit. It’s OK to recognize that you don’t have the tools to help this person; when you’ve reached your limit, gently explain that you can’t offer the help they deserve and do what you can to point them in the direction of professional resources that will be better able to serve them. I know that in so many places professional assistance is difficult if not impossible to obtain; I hope to have a better answer for these situations later.
ENCOURAGE ENGAGEMENT WITH PROFESSIONALS WHERE POSSIBLE. One of the things that has absolutely helped me is finally deciding that I needed professional help. I’ve learned how to manage anxious thoughts and self-destructive loops with cognitive behavioral therapy, learned that a chemical imbalance can be righted with medication, worked out past issues through speaking with a psychologist. Now that I know that it’s also likely I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and ADHD, I can work on further refinements to my understanding about myself to get even closer to where I want to be.
I know there can be a general distrust about therapists, especially among those of us in the fandom with alternative sexualities and fetishes. I know there can be significant concerns about medications, and it’s true that the process of finding the right one can be difficult and long. I know that the expense and uncertainty involved in working through these issues in a professional setting can, in certain cases, make things seem worse before they seem better. But coming out of the other side with a set of tools that allow us to better understand ourselves and work with errant thoughts is ultimately worth it.
If possible, please encourage people with mental health issues to seek out professional resources. It may take some time to find a therapist or treatment that works, so while they’re figuring it out they may need to lean on friends and loved ones to push through discouragement and fear. That’s OK. With these things, process can come slowly and discovering and untangling the knots of our own psyche can be intense. I believe in the process, though, and I believe in the results. That may not be true for everyone, but at least making the attempt is fruitful.
Thanks again to everyone for reading this week, offering their suggestions, feedback and support. I know this has been a pretty difficult ride for almost everyone involved, and I hope that I’ve made my intentions and desires clear. I don’t want 2 to stop performing comedy — it’s something he’s clearly put a lot of work into, that many other people enjoy, and it has never been the issue for me. I merely want him to recognize the power he has as a writer and speaker with a broad platform, and to be more careful with sensitive subjects. I totally understand his brand of comedy, but challenging jokes (and opinions) require a deft touch and an intricate understanding not only of the subject matter but how people are affected by the things he says and the ideas he expresses. As someone with the power to change minds and affect lives, he has the responsibility to get it right.
I’ll continue trying to do that myself. My understanding of these things is changing and refining all the time, and I’m still learning how to be engaged and sensitive to the unique struggles of my fellow minorities in geek spaces. I want to get it right, and I want to encourage everyone out there to try to do the same. We can be challenging, irreverent and questioning of sensitive subjects. But we can also be compassionate, intelligent, open and accepting. We can’t get there, though, without caring about the things we say and do.