How “Talk About It” Gets Depression Wrong

Max Chis | staff writer

max chis
By shattered.art66 from Flickr. Released to Creative Commons.

Another year, another semester of life on a college campus where the resources to address mental health are inadequate. As per usual, when institutions fail to provide more extensive and better quality of care, it becomes the burden of student groups to make up for institutional failings, inevitably in insufficient ways. The continuing mental health crisis on Campus, aided by an overburdened and underfunded Counseling Center, has led to an administration-organized but student-composed initiative to fight back against mental illness — the “Depression: Talk About It” campaign.

The “Talk About It” campaign is meager. Between offering “kindness cookies” and “#StomPittOut” twitter hashtags asking people to “Stomp Out” mental illness stigma — which currently has a grand total of 18 posts on Twitter, most of them by formal Pitt organizations, and some of them not even related to the school — “Talk About It” tries to make the task of dealing with college mental illness one that can be solved with baked products and feel-good statements that are 140 characters or less.

On their own, these efforts are well-meaning, if ultimately useless. But on a larger level, these efforts speak to a fundamental misunderstanding of what is needed to address mental illness.

The current “Talk About It” campaign is composed of a great deal of talking around mental illness, or talking about it in the most saccharine, sanitized ways. This is especially evident in one of the “Talk About It” flyers the campaign provides. In addition to reminding the reader of helpful resources, the flyer offers a “Things You Can Do To Alleviate Stress” section offering such advice as “Focus on positive aspects of your life” and “Try to reduce wasting precious energy on negative thoughts and things you can’t control.”

Both are things people with depression would love to do — the problem is, with depression, we can’t. In fact, such advice can sometimes come off as condescending to people who have tried those methods, but found them wanting. They suggest an image of depression that is a lot cleaner and more easily managed than it is — as though it is little more than an abundance of stress and a lack of perspective. And if that is all depression is, asking people to “Talk About It,” to open themselves up to the support and understanding of others, treating depression would be a no-brainer.

But depression is not as neat and clean as simply being stressed or unhappy. It is not even the romantic and beautiful depiction of depression that you see in stock photos of someone crouching in a corner with their head in their hands, like the picture at the top of this article.

Depression is uncomfortable. It is ugly. And it is scary. It is terrifying to experience. Nothing else compares to it. And the sheer terror of it is why it’s so often isolating. People with depression often fear that if others really knew what was going on inside of their minds, they would be abandoned. And that’s not just because depression tells them that; it happens.

To hear me talk about my experience with depression, play the SoundCloud podcast.

Talk About It isn’t enough if people don’t know how to handle what people with depression are talking to them about. For someone who’s not used to depression, or even to someone who is, a person who is speaking honestly about their depression can seem confusing, irrational, even frightening.

Someone who doesn’t understand that is at a disadvantage when it comes to actually helping the depressed person, and their lack of understanding may even lead the depressed person to feel further isolated. And it’s not as simple as saying “Then you should talk about it with a therapist instead of with your friends.” Ideally, we would all have therapists to talk about these problems with. But we don’t all have therapists. There’s not enough of them. Sometimes they’re prohibitively expensive. And some of the therapists we have aren’t good for us, and maybe not good in general.

That’s why “Talk About It” isn’t enough. That’s why we need not just better resources, but a better under- standing of what depression is and how we can help its sufferers. We can’t just “Talk About It” if people aren’t ready to listen, and we can’t “StomPittOut” if we don’t even know what we’re up against. If we want to deal with depression, we need to be willing to look at it — to face it in all of its ugliness and cultivate compassion towards that ugliness. It is not easy, but that is precisely why it is so badly needed. ◆

Max is a senior psychology major. Like most millennials, he has no idea what to do with his life and is terrified of adulthood.

Check out more from our February 2016 issue!