Please, Let’s Stop Using the Word “Depression”!

It’s time to get rid of the term “depressed.”

The concept “depression” started out as a term used by psychiatry to designate a clinical syndrome or condition. In other words, it was supposed to describe the abnormal, the unusual, or the not-to-be-expected.

Nowadays, however, everyone and his brother, his sister, her daughter, and first cousin are all depressed.

Lost your job? Then you’re depressed. Not enough sun during the winter? You’re depressed.

Feeling badly for no reason at all? You’re depressed. Feeling bad all the time, for all kinds of reasons? Then you’re depressed.

A man opens fire in a crowded school or movie theater? He must be depressed (or maybe Bipolar; but that’s partly being depressed.)

A mother systematically drowns her children or drives them in a lake? She must be depressed. Then what about all the other mothers who feel like doing that on a bad day, but would never do so? Well, they’re depressed too.

Just got diagnosed with cancer and you’re snappish with your co-workers and your children? Then you’re depressed.

There’s such a wide array of precipitating events, emotions and ideas to which we attribute the malady of “depression” that the term has become totally meaningless. Words are supposed to signify concepts, and concepts are supposed to ultimately have some kind of reference to sensory-level reality. People are supposed to have some remote notion of what they mean when using the term “depressed,” and the concept or emotion of  “sadness” will not suffice. People don’t commit horrible crimes or do stupid things and then say, “I did it because I’m sad.” They don’t lie, treat supposedly significant others with indifference or cruelty, or do otherwise harmful and self-defeating things because of “sadness.” They say depressed rather than sad for a reason — albeit, a reason they will not name.

The alternative to all this confusion is to speak in clear, concrete and specific terms. Nothing could be more vague or meaningless than the term “depression” has now become. So there’s nowhere to go but up, when it comes to clarity.

When you think or speak about your emotions, try to be more specific. Try to own some responsibility for your thinking processes and recognize that your emotions are arising from particular ideas or beliefs you hold.

Instead of saying or thinking, “It’s cloudy and rainy today and I was hoping for a nice day, to have a good bike ride. I’m depressed,” try saying the following: “I had counted on a nice day for bike riding today, but it doesn’t look like it will happen. It’s not the end of the world, and I’ll get over it. I’m disappointed at the moment. I’ll have to think of an alternative. And we’ll make a rain date.”

Or, instead of saying or thinking, “I broke up with my girlfriend and I’m depressed,” say something closer to the truth like, “I broke up with my girlfriend and I really miss her. I can’t stand sleeping alone, I can’t stand not having sex with someone I love, and I can’t stand being solo at social gatherings. I’ll have to get used to it, and in some ways I’m better off without her because we fought a lot and I never seemed to be what she wanted. But right now it’s still hard.”

Notice the subtle but profound difference here? In the first case, you’re vague and implying there’s nothing you can do about your emotional state, and that your thinking mind, in fact, never had anything to do with that state. “I’m depressed” comes across like a lot of people seem to believe, “I just got hit by lightning.” Also, because the term “depressed” has come to have almost religious connotations inspiring both fear and awe in anyone who hears the term, use of the term tends to generate automatic and uncritical/unqualified expressions of sympathy.

Imagine telling your boss, “I can’t come to work today because I just don’t feel like it.” This won’t go over well with most bosses. Now imagine telling your boss, “I can’t come to work because I suffer from depression.” Nothing will silence anyone faster than this term, arousing fear, immobilization or paralysis when it’s most desired. This probably explains much of its popularity with certain kinds of people.

I’m not necessarily saying depression doesn’t exist. But it started out as a clinical/psychiatric/borderline medical term implying or meaning far different things from what it has come to mean in polite society. Yes, it’s now always appropriate and correct to tell people you’re “depressed.” But you’re counting on the credibility of a certain medical/psychiatric set of criteria which you haven’t taken the time to study, nor would even claim to have the qualifications to determine. So how did everyone get to be such an expert just by saying and knowing the term?

It’s intellectually lazy and psychologically unimaginative to succumb to using the term “depression” as a catch-all phrase to describe literally any level, kind or context of unhappiness for any reason whatsoever. Members of my own profession foster and reinforce this laziness as much as anyone else. Enough, already!


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