Don’t Call It “Mild Depression”

Bringing attention to this epidemic of denial

Philip Dhingra
Mar 4, 2020 · 3 min read
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Camouflaged flounder on pebbles. (source)

For ten years, from ages 16 to 26, I did nothing to improve my mental health. I didn’t even know that I needed to work on my mental health. Often, when I was lying on the floor, over-analyzing something someone said to me, I’d become aware that I was over-thinking. My head would hurt, and my eyes would get blurry. But then I’d say to myself, “What if all this worry is justified, and something is really wrong with my life.” For ten years, I made that excuse, and nothing you could say would have changed that.

Then I discovered meditation. I started breath-monitoring for 30 minutes a day, and it dawned on me that I had been in denial for ten years. Nearly everything I worried about was just in my head. I probably could have saved myself 99% of my neurotic episodes had I adopted meditation as a teenager. On some level, those ten years of my life had been a waste. Oof.

After meditating for eight years, though, I noticed something troubling. It seemed that I stopped succeeding professionally. In my early twenties, I made three hit iOS apps, two for my account, and one for a client. After meditation, I produced nothing of note. I then thought, “What if this whole time, meditation has been making me too calm, and that anxiety is crucial to success?!”

So, I took a break from meditation, but then the same troubling patterns of my adolescence returned. Then I reversed course again, meditating even more, doing one-hour sessions. Within a few months, I scored my biggest professional win when I sold one of my startups.

Which got me thinking, What if we’re all in denial? How would we even know? Is there some sort of test, like the test for insanity?

I’ve been reading lately about dysthymia, a troubling condition that is erroneously labeled as “low-grade depression.” I suspect that a little more than half of the people I know have dysthymia. Still, they minimize it as just ranting, venting, problem-solving, waiting for a project to finish, waiting for him or her to turn around, waiting for some philosophy or some self-improvement to pan out, i.e., some high-level excuse.

When they go home, I suspect they have the telltale experiences of “low-grade depression.” I suspect they have brainstorms that last for hours, where they’re in bed, dwelling on issues in their life. Unlike people with major depression, they eventually get out of bed. But when they return to their friends, family, or co-workers, they don’t talk about it. To them, it’s “just ordinary stress,” “not a crisis,” “nothing I can’t handle,” or “not worth talking about.”

Complete self-awareness is a logical impossibility; a camera can never directly see itself. Likewise, an ego can never truly see itself. If dysthymia is as widespread as I think it is, which I estimate, maybe 30–40% of Americans have, then the requisite denial that goes along with it might be our greatest challenge as a society.


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