Let’s Bust Some Myths: Depressed People Are Always Sad or They’re Faking!

Last year, after the incredibly scientific method of “looking at Facebook photos”, Manulife Insurance Company decided that Nathalie Blanchard wasn’t really depressed, she was just faking it, and thus cut off her disability-related funding.

Mix up a few details, and Blanchard’s story is a pretty common one. Whenever I talk to people who are currently living with long- or short-term depression, or have lived with it in the past, they tell me the same story: Friends thought they were faking because they managed to get out and have a good time. They laughed at a joke once and everyone decided they were “over” their “funk”. They didn’t act like stereotypes of depressed people, so they must not actually be depressed.

Woe, and all that.

This is what short-term depression was like for me: I spent four months getting up, going to work, doing my job quite well, eating at work, coming home, feeding the cat, lying down on the couch, falling asleep, and waking up to do it all again the next day when the cat bit me to remind me that I had to feed him. I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t go online. I didn’t eat when I wasn’t at work. I didn’t go into my bedroom. I enjoyed my job, and was often bubbly and vivacious at work, and while everyone outside of my job figured there was something up, everyone I worked with thought I was great fun and having a lovely time.

This is what short-term depression looked like for my friend: She spent a few months being aware of every possible way she could kill herself in a room. She was really angry and yelled at people a lot. She would go for long walks in the dark and wonder if someone would just hit her with a car and be done with it. She cut off most contact with her friends and spent as much time as possible alone. She was told that she should “get over it” – whatever “it” was – because everyone gets “down” sometime and she was just being a drama queen.

This is what short-term depression looked like for another friend of mine: He didn’t feel like doing anything, so he didn’t. His doctor encouraged him to go out with friends, so he went out with friends, and laughed when other people laughed and acted as normal as he could. Sometimes he’d have a really good time, and then he’d feel bad because if he was having a good time, he probably wasn’t depressed, and that meant he was just a horrible person, so he’d go back into his room and not do anything because otherwise he was bad, and then the doctor would encourage him to go out and the cycle would begin anew. But most of the time he just didn’t feel much of anything. People told him he must be getting over everything because otherwise he wouldn’t be getting out.

Depression can be sitting alone in a room being sad or down or feeling empty and alone. But when this is the only thing that people think of when they think of depression, not only are there cases like Blanchard’s, but there is pressure on the person with depression, from friends, family members, co-workers, even themselves, to look “depressed enough”.

This stereotype can also lead to people with depression delaying seeking assistance. When I was depressed, I didn’t think I was really depressed, because I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t crying. I just didn’t want to talk to anyone. At all. Ever again. But I just knew I wasn’t depressed because I didn’t want to die. It took me many months to get any of the help I needed, and many of my friendships were irreparably damaged in the meantime.

This stereotype can also lead to more social isolation for someone with depression. If one needs to “act depressed” in order for people to take depression seriously, that can lead to sitting alone even if sitting alone isn’t what one wants to be doing.

I can’t tell you how people will behave when they’re depressed because, even when depressed, people can and do make all sorts of choices. They may do any of the things I’ve referred to here, or they may do something else entirely. If you think you’re depressed, I encourage you to do what you need to do to get through it, and I hope you find the help you need to recover.

For your reading enjoyment, a “Things People Say To People With Depression” Bingo Card. It looks like it was originally posted by inbar–1423 on Tumblr. The link is to one with the image described.

ETA: Actually, the bingo card was originally created by YouKiddinRight on Livejournal. Thanks for the correction!

22 thoughts on “Let’s Bust Some Myths: Depressed People Are Always Sad or They’re Faking!

  1. In a review of “Its Kind of a Funny Story” a reviewer critisized the movie because it “didn’t seem like the kid had anything to be depressed about.” I’ve been so angry about that because apparently its the burden of a person with suicidal feelings to justify those feelings to every single person to come their way. Thank you for this article!

  2. After over twenty years with depression (the first sixteen of these spent ignoring it in the hope it would go away, or bulling through bad periods because I didn’t have it as bad as some other people etc) I can explain what chronic depression looks like for me.

    Firstly, there’s a gap in my head where neurotypical folks have their “motivation” stored; it’s taken me close on twenty-five years to realise that my complete lack of ambition or interest in things like a career path isn’t a symptom of me being “weird”, it’s actually a symptom of the depression. In effect, most of my choices to do things are driven either by pure biological imperative (my stomach is growling, therefore I shall eat; my bladder is bursting, therefore I shall go to the loo) or by intellectual knowledge (wearing clothes is seen as a social “good”, therefore I shall take a shower and get dressed as a symbol that I am all right today). There’s no emotional loading on any of this, which means when I’m feeling particularly unenergetic, the biological needs get seen to, but the intellectually driven ones will fall by the wayside. This gap in my head is also why I have trouble taking my medication consistently – taking the meds is an intellectually driven system, which means if I’m low on energy, the intellectual knowledge that taking the meds regularly is a Good Thing is insufficient to ensure I actually do it.

    The second major thing about depression is the effect it has on energy levels. When making the shift from thought to action requires deliberate, conscious input, it affects the amount of energy available for other tasks. Effectively, if the thought – action gap is too large, just getting out of bed in the morning can be intimidating. If maintaining concentration requires deliberate, conscious input, and maintaining concentration is required, I have to reprioritise other energy needs. This leads to things like me explaining to the disability officer at uni how for me the choice was really coming down to “I can take my classes or I can take my meds, but I can’t do both” – if I worked to maintain the medication status, it left me short of energy to concentrate in classes and do homework; if I wanted to maintain my grades, I’d let my meds slip (which would leave me with less energy, and around and around the vicious cycle goes).

    Third thing: for me, medication makes the gap from thought to action shorter. If I maintain my meds, I can simulate “normality”. Of course, this means if I’m taking my meds regularly, people tend to assume I’m having them on about having a depressive disorder in the first place. So, in order to have my depression recognised externally, I have to present as depressed. Low mood, low energy levels, no interest in anything, and the consequent emotional flattening which comes with it, along with the whole mess of feelings of worthlessness and incompetence which go along with the rest of the symptoms. So effectively, in order to ensure I keep getting my medication, I have to spend a lot of time off it, being visibly depressed so other people will take the disorder seriously.

    This does not screw with my head in the least {/sarcasm} {/sarcasm} {/sarcasm, damnit!}.

    A final point – the point at which I’m usually getting assistance for depressive episodes is when I’m coming out of them. Depression sneaks up on me, drags me down into the pit where I can barely function, and blinds me to the whole reality of my situation. So when I turn around and see “oh shit, I’ve been depressed” and start doing things about it, I’m actually in the process of recovery, and not due for another episode for about another month or so. Which, again, leads folks to think “oh, she’s having it on”. It also doesn’t help that as I get older and understand more about my disorder, I’m less guilty about things like having it in the first place (I didn’t choose it, so I refuse to feel apologetic for the fact) and about acknowledging the effects it has on my life (accepting I will have low energy days means I don’t feel as useless and helpless when an “ordinary” day knocks me sideways rather comprehensively), so I don’t simulate the classic anxious symptoms either. Which means I don’t have low moods as often any more. The depression is still there, it’s just I’ve come to terms with it, and don’t feel as bad about it these days.

  3. Last year, after the incredibly scientific method of “looking at Facebook photos”, Manulife Insurance Company decided that Nathalie Blanchard wasn’t really depressed, she was just faking it, and thus cut off her disability-related funding.


    OK, maybe not the most insightful response. All I can really say to the whole article is, “Wow, do I ever hear this.” I’m glad you wrote it; it lays out pretty neatly a bunch of the hypocrisies and attitudes that directly disadvantage depressed people (like me, for one!) every day.

  4. “Last year, after the incredibly scientific method of “looking at Facebook photos”, Manulife Insurance Company decided that Nathalie Blanchard wasn’t really depressed, she was just faking it, and thus cut off her disability-related funding.”

    That is just horrifying. They’ll find anything to deny people coverage!

    For me, depression means not cleaning anything except that which makes me feel gross, and basically going between my bed and my computer, depending on the time and how tired I was. It was all about distracting myself from what I was feeling. Now that I’m medicated I seem mostly normal, but even then I’d have good days where the stars would align and I’d actually be normal. Or, y’know, I could fake a smile for a picture.

  5. Reading this hurts because it’s so close to home. I’m so tired of it. All I *feel* is tired. I want to feel things again, and I don’t know what to do to get through. I’m broke and can’t afford my therapist or my meds, which- I don’t know if they were really working anyway; I can’t remember now- and there might be resources that I can go to even while broke but finding them takes so much mental energy that it seems insurmountable.

  6. Nathalie Blanchard’s story was heartbreaking to me. Of course photos of her on Facebook would be happy, social ones. Happy social occasions are generally when people take photos. Depressed people can have moments or even days of feeling fine while still having a really hard time overall.

    And a photo doesn’t necessarily show what’s in your head. I can’t speak for all depressed people, but for me faking being okay is possible, at least for a limited amount of time. I carpooled to the wedding of some friends and felt very bad that day and didn’t really want to be there, but I wasn’t going to make a scene at their wedding. I just tried to act as pleasant as possible under the circumstances, though for the latter part of the reception I just sat alone with a cup in my hand.

    Later I mentioned to somebody how uncomfortable I’d been and they said it didn’t show at all. Being able to do that for one evening doesn’t mean I can be 100% functional all the time, though, and it frustrates me that that’s the assumption that some people have. Going to one party (where there aren’t really any expectations on you other than not actively crying or yelling at somebody) is totally different than getting up every day and going to work, where you have to be engaged and active.

  7. Thank you for making the point that these stereotypes can also put someone off from seeking assistance! I know it took me a long time to realize that what I was experiencing was depression, because it wasn’t anything like what I *thought* depression was. (I’m lucky to have a supportive partner who has extensive experience with depression, who was able to notice some of my symptoms and gently point out that I might want to look into it).

    And thanks for linking to that bingo card–now I’m trying to decide whether to send it to my mom.

  8. Thank you so much for posting this. Looking at Facebook photos? Oh dear. I’ve lived almost 30 years with depression, and I so often get accused of faking it because I’ve been known to smile and have pleasant experiences from time to time. I’ve struggled with this idea – What does my depression have to look like for others to take me seriously?

  9. Thank you. It’s so important to let people know that depression affects people differently and that it is possible to have good days while still being depressed.

    Now that I’ve got meds that work for me, I’m mostly okay, but as a result I’ve had people (including a doctor) ask me why I’m still on meds after 5 years, and I answer that they are still working, and I know they are still working because for the first time in my memory I no longer imagine killing myself. That usually shuts them up.

  10. Pictures of anyone who is long-term ill are always going to represent some of the less bad times and when it’s depression, who says that means they’re always miserable anyway? That’s really the height of ignorance and obviously some jobsworth made that decision. My aunt and uncle have both had depression (of different types) and I can’t believe anyone would say that a picture of them having a good time means they’re not ill. When you can tell so much from just looking at a few pictures out of context, who needs a diagnosis?

    I have a book called Lost Voices, in which a number of British people with (mostly severe) M.E. tell their stories and share pictures, and the first person featured said that any collection of photos would only represent the “best of the worst” because at the absolute worst of times, the last thing on anyone’s mind was taking a picture. I’ve seen other pictures on Facebook of people with severe M.E. I know to spend most of their time lying down in a dark room, but at the time some of the pictures were taken they were (shock horror) standing up! A really representative picture collection would contain an awful lot of dark pictures where you couldn’t make out much.

  11. My worst times are when I have too much down time. I start thinking about things in my life, and from there it turns into a never-ending circle of self-examination and criticism, and memories of bad times. I had those moments when I’m out with people too (I’ve never been all that comfortable in crowds, so overly busy scenes can cause minor episodes), but if I’m actually DOING something, usually that keeps my brain occupied enough to stop it from dropping into a depressive frame of mind. So I’m generally in a relatively good mood when I’m out and about–I have most of my worst moments at home.

    Meg: I so hear you on the thought-action gap. To make things extra hard, I find I’m most able to accomplish things later in the day–you know, the time when most people are out doing social things. So I get stressed out because I’m not sure how to manage necessary tasks and having an actual social life, since they tend to wind up competing for time. And then too much stress leads to me shutting down, thus even less motivation, thus more stress…you get the idea.

  12. Crying would have been a great release when depression grabbed me, instead of … I want to watch a movie, but I don’t want to get up. (This is in my dorm room, so it’s like 2 steps from the bed to the TV.)

    You know what’s hard though? Knowing that I’m not always “sad” or just empty and can be happy (not faking) when I’m depressed doesn’t negate my depression – that’s easy.

    But if I have a good day pain-wise, well, I should be in school. I shouldn’t have taken that pain pill (even if said pill is part of the reason the day’s been good). I should should should should. So I actually feel *relieved* when the pain comes roaring back. For a second. (I withdrew from school this semester, so I’m just lazing around, shouldn’t I be suffering to justify it?)

    Another thing with the pain is the same with the depression – it’s been going on for four years – of course I can be in a good mood or be happy when I’m in pain! I can laugh and smile and scream at baseball teams or players.

  13. Thank you for this post. It’s sometimes really hard for me, knowing I have depression and not feeling like shit all the time. I go to my psych appointments in a good mood and wonder why she even bothers tallying to me when I’m not crying and suicidal.

    These sorts of stereotypes mean I don’t just get shit from my mind, but from the rest of the world too.
    It turns into this horrible cycle of fail and self deprication. Knowing other people feel similar things and think similar thoughts makes it all just a bit easier.

  14. Great article. I’ve personally always associated my worst episode of depression with emptiness. Just the feeling that I didn’t feel anything at all.

    Oh, and by the way, I’m the original poster of the bingo (I’m kind of surprised it made it out to the interwebs!) so here is a link to my journal if you ever want to change the link the post.

  15. Thanks, youkiddinright! I didn’t realise it had come from you. I’ve updated the post to reflect that.

  16. I like the Bingo card….all it needs is “You’re wallowing. Just choose to be happy!”

    Because it’s So. Easy. to choose to be happy when you feel like there’s nothing worth living for.

  17. This is just so disheartening.

    It reminds me of the people who insist there’s nothing wrong with me because I am able to hold down a job. *facepalm*

    I don’t let people take pictures of me when I feel like ass and suspect that I also look like ass, so there are no Facebook pictures of me when I’m really sick. There are not a lot of Facebook pictures of me at all.

  18. Years ago, I had a job where I was very careful never to mention anything about my depression at work, because I was fairly sure that being open at work had cost me the job before that. As I was leaving for a new opportunity, I finally made a comment to a co-worker. She looked at me blankly, “but… you’re so cheerful!”

  19. That bingo card – I think I have had every single one of those comments made to me at one time or another. The one about not taking medications has been several times, and I really want to scream and hit someone when they say that.

  20. When I was in therapy for depression, one of the major things I struggled with was the ability to fake it to get through the day, the self-loathing for being such a false person, and the voice in my head saying that as long as I was going to work and supporting myself, I was totally fine, didn’t need to be on anti-depressants, and was just malingering.

    There are very few pictures of me when I’m depressed. I took one self-portrait once. I had the word “help” written on my hand. That didn’t end up on facebook.

    The last thing a depressed person needs is the external world minimising or outright dismissing our struggles because we manage to seem fine.

Comments are closed.