Depressed or melancholy?

There are people who will tell you that depressed people are just making a fuss, ought to pull themselves together. Take a nice walk, listen to some music, stop feeling sorry for yourself. These are people who haven’t experienced depression for themselves. What makes it difficult is that they may have experienced melancholy, and believe that the depressed person is feeling as they did when that happened to them.

Now, when it comes to a touch of gloom, a down day, a bit of melancholy, this is sound advice. Get outside, go for a coffee with a friend. Listen to your favourite album. Play with a cat. Do something you know will lift your mood, and your mood will lift. So long as you don’t wallow about in it, you can indeed get shot of it, because it’s just a mood and will pass.

From the outside, there are no obvious signs that a depressed person is experiencing something different from that. However, depression means serious underlying unresolved issues. This may be current life issues – stress, lack of rest etc, it can be a side effect of physical illness and ongoing pain, it can be unprocessed trauma, it may be a chemistry issue. Small changes won’t shift it. In some cases, a degree of relief can be found in doing small things, and for some of us, doing small uplifting things over weeks, or perhaps months can really help turn things around – this was certainly true for me. Getting a change in your environment that allows you more good stuff can make a difference. But, a single shot of uplift won’t change things. In the not being uplifted by the supposed cure, the depressed person can slide further in, feeling ever more powerless and useless.

If the depressed person is subjected to a barrage of being told they should be able to fix this with an array of superficial magic cures, they are not going to be less depressed. They may get worse. Tell a really depressed person to pull themselves together, stop making a fuss, stop wallowing, let go of the self pity – and you will fuel the feelings of despair, uselessness and worthlessness that very likely underpin their condition. Anyone really keen to pull a depressed person out – don’t tell them what to do, get in there and see what you can gently do that will enable them to do it. Ask what would help. Offer support. Don’t assume you know best. Many people have no hope of healing until the thing causing the problem changes.

And, for people who are depressed, I know how hard it is not to internalise other people’s suggestions as criticism. There was a meme a bit back that basically said trees are medicine and pills are rubbish – it’s a case in point because it creates the impression that depressed people just aren’t trying hard enough or making the right choices. And so you feel worse than before. If you can hang on to the thought that anyone pedalling this stuff is talking from a place of total ignorance, it helps. The really problematic ones are the folk who will tell you they know about depression, when all they really know is about sadness and fleeting gloom. They mistake their molehill for your mountain. But, when they are confident and you feel like shit, it is all too easy to be persuaded.

The bottom line is, if what someone else says isn’t useful, that doesn’t make them right and you useless. It may well mean they have no bloody idea. It is possible to prevent them from stealing away more of your self esteem if you can bear this in mind.

The bottom line for people on the other side of this is that if you think you have a simple solution for depression, then you are wrong. You may have an effective intervention for passing gloom, but anything that can be fixed with a walk in the park or a kitten photo was not depression in the first place and you need to reassess what you think depression is and be alert to the risk of blaming the sufferer.

I haven’t had a really bad bout in more than a year now. I’ve had rough patches, but I think I’m surfacing. There were no quick fixes.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

21 responses to “Depressed or melancholy?

  • Siobhan Johnson

    What I’ve found is that whichever method(s) you use to help depression, it will take months (at least!) to clear. So when I get given this kind of nonsense, I usually just repeat ‘healing takes time’ over and over again until they either get it, or get bored. The NHS would not be giving out pills and therapy if looking at a bloody kitten solves the 1 in 4 adults are mentally ill dilemma. It’s not cost effective! Some people need a shot of common sense before they start ‘helping’ other people.

  • John Davis

    My wife had a bout of severe post-natal depression 30+ years ago. Looking back, I don’t think that I was much help to her. Ok I was able to look after the infant and keep on top of the household chores but I think I was far too concerned in trying to see how “I” could fix what was wrong. However, an old college friend lived nearby…he would just come and sit on the stairs and listen and not say anything quite often. He was a more effective help than I! John /l\

    • Nimue Brown

      There’s a lot to be said for keeping the practical things moving – it does help take the pressure off, and being depressed while feeling responsible for a small human is a lot of pressure…

  • Craig Hallam

    Reblogged this on Down Days and commented:
    Hi everyone,
    I simply had to share this with you all. It’s a very poignant piece of advice from the lovely Nimue Brown, a lady that I encourage you to follow. Take a read of her article on the difference between depression and melancholy:

  • Sheila North

    This is wonderful, both what you said, and the fact you haven’t had a bad bout for over a year. *So* pleased for you!

    Loved this; “In some cases, a degree of relief can be found in doing small things, and for some of us, doing small uplifting things over weeks, or perhaps months can really help turn things around.” Hard to judge when this will help, & when pushing ourselves to do these small things just won’t do the trick.

    I can write when I’m melancholy: it helps me, & can – in my opinion – result in my best writing. I cannot write when I’m in the depths. Conversely, once I start to surface, it’s the best thing ever to get me out of the hole, & back amongst the living again.

  • TPWard

    One thing it’s important for Pagans and polytheists to understand is that during depression, it’s quite likely that magic will not work and the victim will feel cut off from the gods.

  • Pat G

    Great piece – thank you Nimue.

  • lingib

    I was told exactly that, ” pull yourself together and take a tonic” 38 years ago when I had my son after a traumatic pregnancy and birth. This resulted in undiagnosed post natal depression which developed into full blown depression until 4 years ago, when my GP confirmed it. I still get bouts and have treated myself with meditation because medication made me ill. I tried to take my own life before being diagnosed, only my family stopped me. People need to understand how serious depression is. There is no instant cure.

  • Rick

    Dear Nimue: Thank you for returning to this theme. Your writings on this subject are some of the very best I’ve read. One question that has always interested me is whether it is possible to be depressed and still spiritually connected (if not necessarily spiritually “healthy”). Too often, I think, people assume that if they’re depressed, their spiritual practice isn’t “working,” and this then leads to a whole new level of internal struggle that makes things infinitely worse.

    • Nimue Brown

      for me it depends on how depressed – when it’s not totally overwhelming, the spiritual engagement has still worked, in times of severe depression, one of the key signs for me that I’ve been in serious trouble has been a loss of connection with the world around me, feeling out of kilter with the seasons, the sun, everything… and on a number of rounds, I did feel that as a spiritual failure rather than as something that was happening. I’ll see if i can blog this properly at some point.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Posted link to my Facebook page. So that will get it to another three continents.[Grin] Of course I doubt that I am the only one of your viewers doing that.[Big Grin]

  • David

    Great news, you’ve been a year without…. Superb blog… Best wishes x

  • A bit worried or suffering anxiety? | Druid Life

    […] A bit back I wrote about the differences between depression and sadness and the problems that arise when people think that their brushes with melancholy mean they know what depression is. You can read that here – […]

  • luthienthegreen

    Yes, I hate it when people think just telling you to be positive will help… as if you haven’t tried that!

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