“I am depressed.” I have heard it so many times. You probably have heard it too. It is possible that you have even said it yourself. I know that I have. When someone is feeling down, having a bad day, has experienced a serious loss, or is having significant symptoms of depression, “I am depressed,” is often the way their emotional state is described.
I don’t like it – the language that is. The language that has become the most common way to talk about the problem called depression is also a personal identity statement. This is not good.
Think about it – people fighting cancer do not say, “I am cancer.” People who have the flu do not say, “I am flu.” And yet, the most common way to communicate a struggle with depression is to make an identity statement – “I am depressed.”
So, what’s the big deal? Who cares how a person articulates their experience? Isn’t this just a nit-picky thing for academics to argue about as they try to sound important enough to justify their position?
Well, as it turns out, it matters quite a bit. Here is why:
Objectification. When a person says, “I am depressed,” they are making a self-objectifying statement. Objectification is treating a person like a thing, and it is corrosive to the soul. No person is the problem that they are dealing with, and yet that is what “I am depressed” is communicating and reinforcing. Furthermore, When the rest of us allow depression and identity to be synonymous, we participate in the objectification. People deal with problems, but people are not problems.
Dangerous. When people say, “I am depressed,” they are making no distinction between the problem they are dealing with and who they are. When there is no distinction between a person and the problem the only way to get rid of the problem is to get rid of the person. WHOA! This just got real. When the problem is as insidious as depression and people identify themselves as the problem, it can seem logically impossible to get rid of the problem without harming the self. With depression increasing the risk of suicide, this is no small matter.
Externalizing is healing. When we are able use language that makes a distinction between depression and the person, the problem can be externalized. When depression can be understood as something other than the self and instead something that happens to us, that ambushes us, that pays us unwelcomed visits, the problem can be resisted without damaging oneself. Many people experience some relief with the simple distinction that they are not the problem.
Just changing the way we communicate about depression, and mental health issues of all kinds, can help bring some relief. Changing how we communicate about mental health is a way that all of us can be part of a supportive social system for people struggling with depression. It is certainly not the cure, but it can contribute to a cure, it can be a first step to a cure.