Coming Out Depressed

Twitter informs me that today is #WorldMentalHealthDay, so it’s a good opportunity for me to come out depressed — for real this time.

I posted the below on my personal blog over 2 years ago. While it was a very positive experience to “come out” to friends and FB acquaintances, I was still reluctant to share it with colleagues or have this post come up when future potential bosses and hiring committees google me. I wasn’t out as a depressed academic.

I have found the Depressed Academics blog helpful. Others may find this post helpful too. And since it’s unlikely I will ever get a permanent job in academia, I can stop worrying that coming out depressed will ruin my career. So that’s good, I guess?

This past May was apparently Mental Health Awareness Month in the USA. I only knew about it because a cartoon appeared on my twitter feed:

The issue is complex, but the point is simple. We don’t treat mental health issues the same as physical health issues, and this is to the detriment of our mental health.

Someone I follow (celebrity, not personal friend) shared this, adding something like “I have anxiety and depression and I’m not ashamed.” This is a great little cartoon, and a great message to share, but even thinking about re-tweeting it initiated a mini freak-out because I am the person in panel four and I am definitely ashamed… I couldn’t re-tweet that part of the message because I wasn’t out. I have anxiety and depression, and I’m mostly in the closet about it.

There are a lot of reasons people might not want to talk openly about their mental health. Being in the mental health closet is obviously very different than being in the closet for other reasons — queer, atheist, brony — but I think the unifying factor is a lack of general public understanding and acceptance.

Most of us can imagine what someone else feels when they have a physical illness. So when someone asks, “I haven’t seen you in a couple days, are you okay?” you can reply, “I had the flu,” and trust that they understand what you mean. They’ll say, “Ugh, that sucks,” and you both get on with your day. But there is no such universal understanding of mental illness. There is no trust that I can say, “I was depressed,” *shrug*, and expect most people to understand. Often just thinking about feeling sad will make me feel sad, so it’s not like I want to invite a discussion of sadness. Plus, I don’t want to have to deal with other people’s reactions to my depression on top of my depression.

What are the things I’m afraid of hearing? Things like:

  • Oh no, what’s wrong?
  • How can I help?
  • But you’re great and awesome!
  • I love you :)

Yes, I know, these may seem like perfectly good responses. But no, I do not want to feel different and special because sometimes my brain decides to make me feel like shit. That is not a cool thing to feel special about.

Here’s how I would want to reply to the above reactions:

  • Nothing specific is wrong, it doesn’t work like that, and yet I can’t stop asking myself that all the time hoping if only I could figure out what’s wrong I would stop feeling like shit, but thank you for reminding me I feel like this for no good reason.
  • No, there is nothing you can do about it, but thanks for making this about you.
  • I’m glad you think I’m great and awesome. It must be fun having those feelings.
  • Sorry, but I won’t magically feel better because you love me. Stop smiling at me like that!

The problem is, people mean well. So instead of replying in a satisfying way, I would be stuck managing someone else’s feelings at a time when I can’t even manage my own. So most of the time, I stay in the closet.

Perhaps you’re wondering what the right thing to say is? I can’t help you there. I could think of some things that wouldn’t bother me personally, but it really depends on the person and the situation and your relationship, and probably also the weather. “Ugh, that sucks” is a good place to start. Increasing your understanding of mental health, especially depression, is a good next step; I’m tempted to try to correct some common misconceptions here, but there are plenty of articles, blogs, and TED talks for the interested.

I guess posting this will mean coming out depressed. I can imagine all kinds of awkward interactions it could result in, especially because I never know who reads this. But I also can imagine that there are many more people who understand than I suspect, because we all rarely talk about it.

P.S. If you are a closeted brony and need someone to talk to, I have seen the documentary and think I am beginning to understand. I won’t judge you. Friendship is Magic.