One of the things I see on social media a lot is this statement
“Depression isn’t a sign you are weak, its a sign you have been strong for too long”
Its a well intentioned way of re-framing how we perceive mental illness but what does it actually mean and is it accurate? For me the language creates some problems!
Firstly, its a bit of a sweeping statement because mental illness is completely arbitrary, affecting people from all walks of life and for any number of different reasons.
What it refers to more specifically is a commonly encountered cause of depression. The curse of modern western society. Stress!
The “strength” to which it refers describes the capacity of a person to cope with stress. In so called “strong” individuals, stress acts as a motivator, an impulse to push harder and harder to overcome the adversity and achieve. When the drive goes beyond the bodies limits there comes a point where it has to break, like any system that is overloaded. At that point depression takes hold.
If you are one of these individuals (its fine by the way, I’m a lot like that myself) you probably feel better knowing that in spite of your mental health, society views you in positive terms as a go-getter. In some cases, it may encourage the perception that mental illness is simply a consequence of normal life if you want to “get on”.
But what if you aren’t “strong”? By implication, if not in actual language, this statement suggests that the opposite, people who fold at the first sign of stress and therefore don’t push their body through the same level of trauma, are unlikely to suffer depression. Apart from this (of course) being absolute rubbish, the implication is that these types of people are “weak” (it is after all the opposite of strong), a term most of us would consider to be an insult. Society after all has little regard for this approach to life.
Am I over analysing? Well certainly if the message that we value strong over weak is not implicitly carried in this statement on mental health, it is one that is heavily implied and indeed replicated across society, particularly in the workplace where I have repeatedly encountered the attitude that “going the extra mile” is pretty much compulsory.
Of course the path you decide to follow in life is an entirely personal choice. Where it becomes problematic is when society guides these choices through negative stereotypes. When people push themselves because they feel that is what is expected, not what they want.
Can a statement intended to make people feel better about themselves really do this? I think it can. I think the stigma of mental illness is driven by thousands of stereotypes, cultural norms and poorly used language. In this example, you could as easily change strong and weak for stupid and wise and tip the entire statement on its head. Language is a powerful tool and tackling what has become accepted norm is a huge challenge. If however we ever hope to have a lasting impact on the merciless onslaught of mental illness its one we have to take on.
It all begins by talking which is why Talking FreELY invest so heavily in facilitating simple and honest conversations about mental health. Because it is these conversations that will drive change.
If you are struggling with mental health there are a number of useful links on the Talking FreELY website. If you want to know how you can help to keep the conversation, check us out on Facebook and Twitter