What's in a Name?

The word depression is thrown about a lot without a clear definition

Have you lost interest or pleasure in activities you once enjoyed? Do you have difficulty concentrating? Have you felt agitated or restless? If so, you may be depressed.

So go many of the ads on television and in print for medicines that treat depression. The ubiquity of these advertisements and the commonness of the symptoms can often give the impression that everyone is depressed. Such a sentiment has led to a backlash, with people declaring that depression is something we should all get used to. Many mental health advocates often then angrily fire back that it is outrageous and horrible to tell people that they must learn to live with depression.

Yet what gets lost in this heated back-and-forth is the definition of depression. Depression is not simply feeling sad. Rather, it a feeling of deep sadness for a prolonged period of time. People may suffer from suicidal thoughts or even attempt suicide, or they may not. They may cry uncontrollably at times or they may keep their grief inside, feeling like they are ready to explode. They will not, however, get over sadness in a week.

People who claim that depression is something that one can live with miss this point. They say that for serious depression, people need help, but for slight depression people should suck it up. The problem is that there is no such thing as slight depression. Depression is by definition serious. If a guy is blue because his girlfriend just dumped him, it’s unfortunate, but it’s not depression. This does not mean he shouldn’t talk to a friend, someone at Room 13, or a therapist at UHS; if he thinks it will be helpful, he should. But no one is going to declare that this forlorn lover is depressed and put him on Prozac. On the other hand, people who have been very sad for a prolonged period of time must seek help for their depression.

Granted, what defines very sad and long is fuzzy. Unlike other illnesses, there’s no blood test for depression or a surefire symptom checklist, so it’s better to err on the side of caution. And granted, some people can live with their depression and even achieve great things. For example, I know a Harvard undergrad who got straight A’s one semester while battling severe depression. Did his depression help him do well? Should he have refused to seek treatment?

Of course not.

His depression distracted him, making it hard for him to pay attention in class. It exhausted it him as he lay awake at night contemplating suicide and caused him to miss classes as he caught up on sleep during the day. Most importantly, he was miserable. Despite his great academic performance, he couldn’t take any joy in his achievements. Ultimately, achievement cannot compensate for sustained misery.

This is not to say that people should live without any sadness or anxiety. When many mental health advocates speak or write, they seem to imply that their goal is a world free of grief and worry. Not only is this impossible, it’s undesirable. Imagine if you weren’t able to be sad at your grandmother’s funeral. Or think smaller. Imagine if you couldn’t feel down when the Red Sox lost. Life would be less enjoyable, worse, not better.

As a friend of mine likes to say, “This isn’t Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. This is the real world.” Sadness and anxiety are an inevitable and necessary part of life. But when the grief becomes overwhelming, when the bad mood lasts for weeks, it’s time to seek help. Depression can hit anyone, and there’s no shame in getting the help you need.

Andrew B. English ’07, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is an economics concentrator in Cabot House.