This is something that has been said to me on many occasions after revealing that indeed, I have depression. It’s something that is said with good intentions, probably to help make me feel less shit about my condition. Am I meant to take that as a compliment?
It implies that all depression looks a certain way and that all depression must look this way. This may be the common misconception that all depressed people never laugh or smile, that we are always crying, that we don’t look like we take care of ourselves, perhaps. There is this notion that people with depression walk around with a visible gray cloud over their heads and if other people can’t see that, well, you don’t look like you have depression and that you probably don’t have depression.
The fact of the matter is, depression takes as many forms as the people who have the condition. Yes, there is a list of symptoms that qualify people to be diagnosed with depression, but we don’t all wear the symptoms the same way. Giving and receiving “You don’t look like you have depression” as a compliment is detrimental to the mental health agenda because it propagates the notion that all depression looks the same. When this notion becomes popular or well-accepted, people may not be able to identify symptoms in those close to them, or worse yet, turn a blind eye to the symptoms just because they don’t look the way they usually or normally should. This may lead people to deprive family or a close friend of the help that they need.
This comment is actually damaging to people with other conditions where the symptoms are not readily apparent or if the symptoms take different forms. “You don’t look like you have ______” Try cancer on that blank. It doesn’t sound right, why should it for mental illnesses?
Another reason it’s damaging is the degree of disbelief usually accompanying the comment. One of the greatest challenges of people with mental illnesses is the difficulty to be heard, recognized, and BELIEVED when we talk about our conditions. The journey is difficult: first coming to terms with it yourself and accepting that you have a mental illness, confiding in and seeking help from family, friends, and a mental health professional, and gaining support from peers.
To say “I have depression” at all, is a big step to many people. Saying it to others is yet another big feat. So, to come at people who are depressed with the whole “You don’t look like you have depression” thing with that tone of disbelief is not only disrespectful, it’s essentially an invalidation of their whole struggle. It hurts more because the fact that it has been revealed to you means that there is some degree of trust and confidence that the person puts on you. There was trust that you will listen, believe, and support.
I’m not asking you to say, “Damn, yeah you look pretty depressed (side note: don’t say “depressed” unless you mean depressed! Same with bipolar, OCD, anorexia, etc.) And no, pity is not the same thing as support.
What would be helpful instead when people tell you they have depression is to ask them how they are doing. Sure, it may be a question with no simple answer. Sure, the answer is difficult to give and to hear sometimes, but it is a validation of the struggle. You’ll be surprised how scarcely we get asked that. It is to recognize that they are fighting against something and you would like to understand. It is asking what you can do to help. It is being a friend. It is being family. Always, always come from a place of compassion; because at a difficult journey such as the one toward healing, non-judgmental support and love are all we could ever ask for.