How do you feel?
I mean, how do you really feel?
Happy? Or depressed? Or??
It seems to me that we’ve started to think that if we’re not feeling happy then we must be feeling sad. And if we’re feeling sad we must be suffering from depression. And if we’re suffering from depression we need to go to the doctor.
This bothers me.
If we think of emotions in terms of colours, with depression being black and happiness being white, there are countless shades of grey in between – and all those other colours too. And if you don’t happen to be feeling bright white right now – it doesn’t mean you have to be feeling dark black. There’s an infinite variety of feelings between the two.
If you go to your doctor and say, ‘I’m feeling depressed’, they will likely give you a sheet of multiple-choice questions to fill in. The starting point for these questions is the assumption that you are indeed depressed, that your self-diagnosis was correct – the questionaire is just designed to work out how depressed you are.
Depression is a very serious and life-destroying condition. It is very different from feeling sad, and if you suffer from it you have my deepest sympathy, you absolutely do.
What bothers me is the way it’s diagnosed – does everyone diagnosed with depression actually have it? I can’t think of any other illness where the diagnosis is based so heavily on the patient’s own assessment.
If you go to the doctor and say, ‘I think I have cancer’, they will not take you at your word. They will ask more questions. They will do a physical examination. They will send you for tests. They certainly won’t accept your self-diagnosis – and you wouldn’t want them to. There may indeed be something wrong with you, it might even be very serious, but it might not be cancer – and of course we expect our doctor to get to the root of the matter and tell us what the problem really is.
So why are we so quick to accept it when someone says they’re depressed? Why are we not treating it with the same rigour we would any other illness? Why are we so reluctant to say that what they’re going through might not be depression (and that’s not to say they’re not suffering, simply that they’re not suffering from depression).
I think part of the problem is that we don’t have the words to describe how we’re feeling. We know, inside, how we feel – but we struggle to put it into words to explain that feeling to other people. So if our mood is low, it’s easier to say ‘depressed’ than to try to really explain it.
And as soon as you take that low mood (which may or may not be depression) to the doctor and call it depression, it becomes a condition that needs to be cured. Doctors are hard-wired to try to cure us.
Depression is notoriously difficult to cure. But if you’re suffering from something else, and try to cure the depression you haven’t got, then it’s unlikely to succeed. If I told my doctor that I think I have cancer when I haven’t actually got cancer, and I then got treated for cancer, that treatment is not going to cure whatever is really wrong with me.
And there are so many other emotions.
We can feel sad, of course – but we can also feel disgruntled, or pissed off, or fed up, or devastated, or tearful, or maudlin, or angry, or worried, or fearful, or…
And we can feel happy – or chipper, or chuffed to bits, or elated, or relieved, or glad, or content, or pleased, or satisfied or…
Let’s not limit ourselves to a black and white world of emotions, where the default of ‘not happy’ is depressed and needs to be treated as a medical condition. That puts us under far too much pressure to be happy – if we’re not happy we must be ill. And happiness is a fleeting emotion at the best of times.
Our emotions are complex, nuanced, hard to explain. Some emotions are difficult to cope with – guilt, anger, jealousy, bereavement, feeling lonely, feeling bored, feeling not good enough, feeling put upon. I’m sure you can think of more. But they are nevertheless normal and natural human emotions – they need to be acknowledged, dealt with, but not necessarily medicalised.
They’re not depression – so, logically, treating them as depression won’t make them go away. Ironically, not treating them at all may lead to them morphing into depression – but that’s a different matter entirely.
As I said at the beginning of this post, if you are suffering from depression you have my deepest sympathy. My concern is that people think that they are depressed but really they might not be.
And that means they’re not getting the help that they really need, to deal with the emotions that they really feel – they’re just getting pills to treat an illness that they don’t have.
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