Why is it important to understand the depression stereotype?

I believe that mental health is a subject area that always needs to be expressed in the right way, and one part of that is understanding what the stereotypes of certain mental health problems are and do everything that is possible to portray the realities. Depression is an example of this, as there are multiple symptoms it can portray within a person. Like with other mental health issues, another individual cannot necessarily see what a person is going through and therefore if someone does not have prior knowledge regarding mental health, it can be difficult for them to understand that something may need to be dealt with medically. They may have preconceived ideas based on stereotypes on what certain mental health issues ‘look like’ when really they are not accurate, and could actually cause damage if they are thought of as being completely correct.

The stereotype

When talking about the depression stereotype, I must stress that this is my opinion, and it is something I myself was guilty of having, but only because it was not something I thought about in a great amount of detail and my opinion was firstly made through the media. For a long time, I thought depression was one thing and one thing only. My particular view of this came from watching the film ‘About a Boy’ when I was a young teenager. For those who haven’t seen it, the film is about Marcus (a young Nicholas Hoult) who is a boy that befriends Will (Hugh Grant) and the friendship that ensues. Marcus, whose mum is Fiona (Toni Collette) has to deal with lots of things in film, including Fiona’s depression, and she attempts suicide early on in the story. With the character of Fiona, we also see her crying a lot and she is portrayed as generally being unable to cope with her life. I was only 13 years old when I saw this film and for a long time afterwards that is what I thought depression was – being sad and crying a lot. I think this is, or at least has been very commonly used as, a way the media - especially films - portray depression. For many years I didn’t think about mental health at all and this stereotype stayed with me. It wasn’t until I watched another television show, which portrayed depression, that I started to research and understand it more.

The reality

The information in the following section is from the mental health charity ‘Mind’ and the NHS. Depression is a low mood that lasts for a long time, and affects a person’s everyday life. There are different types of depression, such as:

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known and SAD): This depression usually occurs in the winter.
  • Dysthymia (also known as persistent depressive disorder or chronic depression): This is a continuous mild depression that lasts for two years or more.
  • Prenatal depression (also known as antenatal depression): This depression occurs during pregnancy.
  • Postnatal depression (also known as PND): This depression occurs in the weeks and months after someone becomes a parent; it is usually diagnosed in women but PND can also affect men.

When a person is diagnosed, they may be told if they have mild, moderate or severe depression, and this describes the impact the symptoms they are experiencing has on them, along with what kind of treatment they will be offered. It is also possible that the different levels of depression may be experienced across different episodes. A person experiencing mild depression may experience being in low spirits, and it may feel as though it is more difficult to do things and seem less worthwhile. However, it does not stop a person leading a normal life. A person who has severe depression may feel suicidal, or have no will to live.

By using the above information from the charity ‘Mind’, it is easy to see how my example using the character of Fiona in ‘About A Boy’ is one correct depiction of depression, but there are many others which need to be known about just as much. Someone with depression may be able to hide that they have it. They may smile and seem to be happy, at least on the outside, but they don’t show the world what they are really feeling. It could also be the case that a person does not even realise they have depression because they do not recognise the symptoms they are displaying.

The NHS states that depression affects people in different ways, with people displaying a wide variety of symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Feeling very tearful
  • Feeling tired constantly
  • Experiencing bad sleep
  • Having no appetite or sex drive
  • Experiencing various aches and pains

This again shows how the depiction I had of depression was a stereotype, and in fact one of many ways depression can be experienced.

The solution

Going back to what I previously said about my own experience of beginning to understand what depression is, and can be, I began to understand depression a lot more when watching Steve McDonald’s storyline in Coronation Street back in 2014. It seemed like he was diagnosed with depression out of the blue when in fact we found out that he had been feeling ‘useless’ and, we as viewers, further witnessed times where he tried to block out everyday life, and lacked energy and slept a lot. However, I don’t think it was until Coronation Street had a similar, yet very different, storyline earlier this year (2018) that the ‘depression stereotype’ was completely disposed of. With the character of Aidan Connor, to many viewers he suddenly died by suicide. There was no warning apart from one short clip of him crying on his sofa. In the next episode, the viewers learned that he had killed himself. This storyline had the impact that depression, as a mental health issue, needed; it came out of nowhere. To eagle-eyed viewers, there were subtle hints for months leading up to it that Aidan was in fact not as OK as he made out he was, but for many it did come out of nowhere because the writers wrote his character as hiding what he truly felt. And this made the storyline even more shocking and upsetting. But it needed to be portrayed.

Ultimately, it is important to understand the depression stereotype because it can have heavy consequences if it isn’t understood. By understanding that depression can be displayed in many forms, people can therefore be more aware of how others may be feeling, and perhaps to make sure that people around them can feel as though they can talk about how they are feeling if they need to. Ultimately, if there is more awareness in society towards depression, and to mental health in general, people who experience mental health issues can hopefully feel as though they can talk about their mental health openly.

It is important for the wider society, who may not have any first-hand experience with depression, to understand that depression can manifest itself in many ways. By doing this, people in general can begin to understand depression as a whole and possibly not be as judgemental or inquisitive about a person who is suffering with depression. I am sure most people have experienced or heard of people judging others when it comes to their mental health, and I think this comes down to these people not being educated on the subject. Like with a lot of things in life, the media has the potential to play an important part in educating people about a certain subject, and mental health is an incredibly important one due to the misguided knowledge that has been perceived throughout the years, and the stereotypes that have been created from that. The problem with stereotypes is that people make quick judgements, and if a person is not displaying the stereotypical signs of depression, some people may be critical of whether the person is indeed depressed. This is why it is important to understand the depression stereotype – to then be able to educate people and eradicate prejudices towards someone who is diagnosed with depression.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach