Can depression build empathy?

photo by Luísa de Freitas

At some point, everyone understands that there is something special about reading a personal text (including not only written texts but also music, or image): that feeling of “oh my gosh, someone GETS ME!”. That statement is usually less true than it seems at the moment, but it still feels pretty good. Human beings are bound to be happier when not alone — not just physically alone, but emotionally lonely.

Some of the most horrifying parts of my depression start when I am 100% just sure that no one can undertstand a single thing about my insane, unreachable mind; I have this certainty that no one can help me, even if they want to. You see, it is not that other people are inherently incapable of helping me, as if they are faulty. No, it is me who doesn’t have the capabilty of being helped. I have the impression that I push people away and refuse their kindness. Sounds crazy, right? Yeah, depression often makes you believe some crazy stuff (and I say that because I have been there; not pointing fingers at anyone besides myself here).

This is very important: I said "some of the most horrifying parts", not necessarily all of them, and I'm only talking about my personal experience — so, please, do not take these things as a rule. But more than telling readers not to, I have to do the same: I have to remember it is not a rule.

Something deeply irritating is a voice claiming to be the voice of mental health, as if they know everything about it because they have suffered and experienced it. Well, if you talk about your experience with depression and you have the impression that you know basically everything about the subject… No, you don’t. Even if you’ve read a lot about it, you cannot claim you know what you’ve read as if you have lived it too. It is not the same. If you talk about something you have experienced, you know your experience, which is more than knowing no experience. And that’s all.

Sometimes it’s part of the "healing" process (if we can talk about "healing" depression): to talk about it all the time, make it the main subject of studies and conversations, and even glamourize it, maybe make it the main concept of your art, or even your job. Well, except for the glamourizing thing (which I think is wrong in many levels), as far as it is not making you worse or making other people feel bad, it can be a great way of understanding your depression. That doesn’t mean, however, that what you have to say is the ultimate statement on depression. Sometimes it is not even a good one (sorry). And that’s okay. Think about all the other people who share you mental issues: how different they are from you — personality, social context, job, hobbies, their family, their past experiences, their childhood, their culture — , how different it is for them to be able to get help, if they have access to therapy, if they have a good therapist or not, where they live, how much money they have. Now think about the fact that any of those items is definitive: sometimes everything is in your favor, you have a great therapist, and/or friends, family, a good job, but it is still a difficult healing process, because those things help, but don’t define you. Just like your depression doesn’t define you either.

Of course it is difficult to have perspective sometimes. When people go out and talk publicly and/or advertise their art about personal experience with depression, they are exposing themselves and, more than accepting, benefiting (subjectively or not) from a public while asking repeatedly for one. Partly, it can be a good sign, although it can be tricky: what if someone is bringing their depression to the spotlight mainly because it is now a way of being seen, for example? That doesn’t sound like an empathetic approach if you want to erase others from your stage, does it?

I am not saying we should deprive ourselves of talking about it because it might not be relatable to most people. On the contrary! We don’t even know if it will. What I think is very important is this: we have to remember to pay attention to our voice, how it resonates. If having an empathetic attitude is something we should always pay attention to, it is specially important for us to remember that when talking about mental issues and/or talking to people who most certainly suffer from what we suffer/have suffered too, but with their different contexts and backgrounds. Because no, depression doesn’t automatically make us more empathetic; it’s being empathetic that might transform our views on depression.


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