By Zerida Mponye

I recently stumbled upon this article on TomaHaiku, a blog space with very interesting, and quite contrarian, views of everything popular. The article, entitled “You’re not depressed. You’re selfish.”, claims that depression is not real and only exists in people’s minds. The bloggers assertion got me thinking about mental disorders, our understanding of them (or lack thereof) and our general responses to the topic. I shared the article with several of my friends and acquaintances in an attempt to pick their brains and try to get a picture of how people generally felt about the subject – depression in particular.

It wasn’t surprising to learn that most people actually agreed with the writer. Growing up, my mother always said that if you couldn’t say something in Luganda, it didn’t exist. And I’ve come to learn that a lot of African parents agree with this consensus. Things like stress, anxiety and depression were considered “kyejjo”, which, when directly translated, means ‘being a cry baby’. So, as you would imagine, people generally do not empathize with the sufferers.

This writer (and so many of us) suggests that thinking positive is a sure way of snapping oneself out of a depression. But if it were really that simple, would we have so many depressed people in the world? I mean, granted, thinking positive can help ward off the condition in the first place. But, for some people, seeing a “way out” of an impossibly hopeless situation seems…well, impossible. There are simply no positives to focus on.  Consider the following hypothetical situation:

A young African man born in the United States is orphaned at age 16. He’s then forced to move to a remote part of Africa after his parents pass away, to live with relatives he’s never met. As if the grief of losing his parents and having to adjust to a new life in a remote place isn’t enough, he finds out that his father killed his mother and that he is HIV positive. He constantly thinks about the fact that he’ll never be able to marry or have children of his own because of his condition. So for years, he suffers from depression; and understandably so. But that doesn’t stop the people around him from telling him to “get over it” or “think positive“, and to “focus on the good things in your life”. How easy can it be for a person like this, a person who has experienced such tragedy in his young life, to “think positive”?  

Ideally, he’d be able to move past those terrible experiences. At least he’s still alive, right? But realistically, we know it wouldn’t be that simple. In fact, many of us wouldn’t survive those kinds of blows. So even though the writer made a number of valid points, dismissing depression as non-existent altogether is, in my opinion, burying one’s head in the sand. The fact that we do not really understand mental disorders doesn’t mean they do not exist. People suffer from depression all the time. Sometimes, it’s short term, in those cases they snap out of it on their own; but other times it’s clinical and people actually have to seek medical help to deal with it.

A friend of mine said of depression, “Depression locks you in this place and throws the key in the ocean and just makes it seem like you have to first search the ocean floor before you can be fine.” And indeed, some people really do need to search the ocean floor for that key. And just as the imagery implies, it’s no easy feat. But a wise man once said that there is no short cut to recovery. Sometimes, it takes working through a depression for people to overcome the difficult situations in their lives.

The truth is, it’s hard to understand depression from the outside —and no one said we had to. But we can help! Be kind, compassionate, helpful, understanding, supportive, encouraging. Ask, “How can I help you?” And most importantly, be there —they need your love and support.