Thoughts on Depression and Buddhism-Lite

I recently stumbled upon a video from a YouTube channel with the username Prince EA. The video is titled “YOU ARE NOT DEPRESSED, STOP IT!” #triggeredalready

I clicked the title because I love “caps lock.” Really. I friggin’ love that button. If I could write everything entirely capitalized, I would. In my mind, it communicates ideas much more effectively. As a member of a Jewish family, we have to be loud to get our points across, so you can imagine, I use caps lock A LOT both literally and figuratively. It irritates people and sometimes, that’s fun.

Prince EA’s real name is Richard Williams and states the following in his YouTube profile:

“Richard Williams, better known by his stage name Prince EA, is an American rapper, spoken word artist, music video director and rights activist from St Louis, Missouri. My goal for this channel is to make people laugh, cry, think, and love with the ultimate goal to evolve.”

I’m not sure what qualifies Williams to offer advice on mental health but hey, David “Avocado” Wolfe has a following and he believes the Earth is flat — anything goes!

“You are not depressed, stop saying that!” he confidently states at the top of the video. Oh, shit, he’s stepped in it, I’m thinking. And he seems to know it, too, because he’s quite aware a statement like this is pretty irritating. For those us whom suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses, it’s easy to jump to conclusions about what he might have to say. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard both friends and strangers refer to depression as a mind-over-matter- type deal. As if it’s my fault for suffering from depression. It’s incredibly irritating. But, still, I smile and nod until they’re finished confronting me about something I have little control over.

Williams is soon comparing depressive thoughts to clouds: they come into view, and then drift away. These clouds take on various shapes, colors, and may even fill the sky but “…they are not the sky,” he says. “If they were, then when they went, the sky would go too.” He urges viewers not to “…identify as depression,” which causes large problems. “Never identify with that which comes and goes.” His point might come close to inspirational but it’s certainly fallible: happiness comes and goes, as well, but that is another discussion.

In the video, Williams is discussing what most people might think of when they think of depression; a mood of deep sadness. A Google search gives us this definition: “feelings of deep despondency and dejection.” Simply put: depression arises when someone feels hopeless and there’s no way out.

To combat these feelings, Prince EA (Sports) borrows from what many mindfulness teachers discuss when first introducing meditation: the idea of impermanence. Everything is impermanent in Buddhism, thus, each thought we have will eventually go away, only to be replaced by a new thought. Many mindfulness students will hear the cloud metaphor: just as clouds may loom for a bit, some hanging around longer than others, thoughts behave in the same way. Eventually, each thought will disappear, just as clouds will, and your mind will move on to watching other clouds as they enter into view and then fade away once again.

In Buddhism, it is taught that suffering comes from attachment to thoughts (and other stuff, but for the meantime, we’re focused on thoughts, k?). For example, you may really want a cookie but for whatever reason, you can’t have one. Maybe you’re at work, school, in the car — it doesn’t matter — you’re cookie-less. If you remain insistent on having a cookie despite not being able to have one at the moment, that’s when suffering happens. In essence, this is saying you haven’t accepted your current circumstances, which you aren’t in control of yet you’re still trying to control them anyway. Being unable to accept what is happening to you in the present brings about suffering, so, Buddhism asks us to relinquish our desire to control things we have zero control over. If you’re stuck on the freeway and hadn’t the forethought to bring some cookies with you, well, you’re out of luck until your next opportunity to buy some cookies.

Buddhism and its views on thinking can literally be antithetical to Western Cultural ideals, so sometimes it really is difficult to translate certain Buddhist teachings into English. Meditation, which comes from Buddhism, is about remaining present and not focusing on the future, or ruminating about the past. Meditation, contrary to popular belief, is not about being absent of thought, merely aware of thought. It is not about being happy, either, though that can certainly happen. It’s all very ethereal, yet, super practical and is a wonderful tool when dealing with depression.

So, what EA Sports is talking about isn’t necessarily harmful. In fact, mindfulness is quite useful — when not discussing clinical depression.

Clinical depression, or major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder. To be clinically diagnosed, one must experience symptoms for upwards of two weeks. The National Institute of Mental Health lists these symptoms, in particular:

  • “Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment”

Depression can be present in other mood disorders, including bi-polar I and II, seasonal affective disorder, perinatal depression, etc. In fact, depression is present in so many mood disorders, a patient can be misdiagnosed with clinical depression when they actually suffer from another disorder. Anecdotally, I was first diagnosed with anxiety and acute depression before discovering I most likely suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Depression and anxiety still plague me and others who suffer from PTSD even if the event triggering event(s) happened months, even years earlier, hence why depression and anxiety still fit in my case.

Over 18% of the American population report suffering from mental illness each year. This is over 40 million American adults. Chances are, you know someone diagnosed with a mental illness. Or at the very least, you know someone who knows someone diagnosed with a mental illness.

It’s unfortunate, then, that depression can often be misdiagnosed, because so many signs and symptoms of depression overlap with other mental illnesses. Check out this blog if you’d like to know about one man’s experience with being misdiagnosed with depression when instead, he suffered from bi-polar. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon, which makes the stigma surrounding depression even more troubling. Many view those who suffer from mental illness as “…dangerous, dirty, unpredictable, and worthless.” The conversation surrounding the gun control debate in the United States illuminates further why the way we talk about mental illness is so important to avoid stigmatizing it. Practitioners must also be more careful when diagnosing patients.

Williams’ feelings about depression are echoed by so many Americans, it’s commonplace for mental illness-sufferers to hide their diagnoses’ from family, friends, and employers. This means that many Americans may never know if mental illness is affecting loved ones. Unbeknownst to them, they may also be contributing to lower priority status for funding mental health services as a result of stigmatizing sufferers.

I’m not reinventing the wheel here, but a few things can be done to help those suffering from mental illness and it’s all relatively easy. Increasing public awareness about mental illness is a great place to begin. This means talking to someone you know who suffers from mental illness about their experience. In addition, you are also free to research various mental illnesses to better understand what to do should you meet someone who suffers from one. Family members and close friends of people with mental illnesses are encouraged to be proactive in their education.

The most important thing is to remember that whenever you hear someone discussing mental illness, it is not synonymous with violence. Violence is commonplace in the United States, but rarely are both co-occuring. Simply because someone is violent doesn't mean they suffer from explosive personality, and vice versa, for example.

When listening to or watching someone like Richard Williams, Tony Robbins, and others that espouse basic Buddhist principals, it’s important to remember that they are not experts or even mental health professionals. These are people offering advice, nothing more. Meditation should never replace what you and your psychiatrist have decided is the most effective course of action. Sometimes, finding the right psychiatrist or medication takes some work but the proper help is out there. And you will be glad you didn’t give up.