I was reading an article about health the other day – the headline being something about how depression can increase the risk of a physical health problem. The article was thoughtful and well-written, but I took issue with the picture. The stock photo that was chosen – like most stock photos in posts that deal with depression – included a solo silhouette of a woman sitting on a bed in a dark room, head buried in her hands. It plays into every overdone stereotype about what depression is.
Per the Mental Health First Aid book I received in Mental Health First Aid Training: the word depression is used in many different ways. People feel sad or blue when bad things happen. However, everyday “blues” or sadness is not a depressive disorder. We all may have a short-term depressed mood, but we cope and soon recover without treatment. A major depressive disorder lasts for at least two weeks and affects a person’s ability to work, to carry out usual daily activities, and to have satisfying personal relationships.
Mood disorders affect nearly 1 of 10 US adults in a given year. The most common is major depressive disorder, which affect 6.8% of adults in any one year. The median age of onset is 32 years, meaning that half the people who will have an episode will have had their first episode by this age. Once a person has had an occurrence of depression, they are prone to subsequent episodes.
I won’t claim to be a clinical expert in any sense of the word. I have spent time sitting with this, talking with friends, learning as much as I can, and I think it’s a culmination of all of the above that caused me to take pause with the dark stock photos.
Per the book: A person who is clinically depressed would have at least one of these two symptoms nearly every day for at least two weeks: an unusually sad mood or loss of enjoyment and interest in activities that used to be enjoyable. They may also have any of these symptoms: lack of energy and tiredness, feeling worthless or feeling guilty though not really at fault, thinking often about death or wishing to be dead, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, moving more slowly or sometimes becoming agitated and unable to settle, having sleeping difficulties or sometimes sleeping too much, or loss of interest in food or sometimes eating too much, sometimes resulting in loss of weight or weight gain.
Most of us are familiar with this list. Maybe we’ve seen a family member or a friend or ourselves personally experience this. It’s the symptom lists that causes us to pick the sad, lonely, isolated stock photos.
The book continues: Not every person who is depressed has all these symptoms. People differ in the number and severity of symptoms.
Point being – depression looks and feels different for everyone. I was thinking a lot about the stock photo thing when I spoke with a friend who has been treated for depression for years. They explained that while they have felt like that stock photo, it’s more often the little things that are impacted the most. For example, sometimes my friend would stay home and “look like that stock photo.” Sometimes they would force themselves to go out with friends. Sometimes it’s not being able to get out of bed. Sometimes it’s getting out of bed anyway and putting all the energy and focus into making those dinner plans. Sometimes, doing laundry is the big win.
They told me they can be the happy, smiling friend at dinner and come home to doubt, fear, anxiety, and seemingly endless hurt. Perhaps that was my bigger complaint with the stock photos. We often think that unless someone is balled up in a corner in tears, they aren’t hurting. I think there are a lot of ways we can do a better job of showing depression for what it is. Sometimes it’s staying up all night. Sometimes it’s sleeping for hours. Sometimes it’s not enjoying your favorite food. Sometimes it’s the inability to concentrate.
It’s a complex issue. And maybe I’m overthinking a stock photo. But I truly believe we can do a better job of having open and fair conversations about mental health and it starts with being conscious of what we put out into the world.