The “Self-Help” Genre Has a Big Problem with Depression

selfhelp

Self-help articles are great. In this day and age, the internet is one of the largest sources of self-help content — and as someone who loves to uplift others and be uplifted, this is a genre that I have a strong affinity for.

But I’ve noticed this really unfortunate trend as of late – namely, articles that suggest that in order to be happier, we need to avoid the habits of “chronically unhappy people,” or remove “negative people” from our lives altogether.

Is someone bringing you down? Just get rid of them! Don’t want to be a downer? Fix yourself!

This all seems to be code for, “depressed people are shitty, and here’s how to avoid them and avoid being like them.”

This is basically saying that folks who are suffering from depression – because that’s what it means, right, let’s call a spade a spade – are not worthy of our patience, love, and support.

Further, we should aspire to be the exact opposite of them, as there is nothing redeeming about them. Let’s observe their struggles, and from that extract all the “what not to do’s.” I think that’s a really problematic response to have to someone who has depression.

When we treat people with depression as though they’re a burden or plague, it perpetuates the stigma that comes with depression, and encourages people to ostracize those who suffer from depression.

Further, mainstream self-help articles push this dichotomy of happy versus unhappy people, oversimplifying the complexities of real people. Moods, and even mood disorders, do not define the entirety of a person.

If it were just one article, I wouldn’t be as concerned. But there are many articles that continually make these vague, and sometimes not so vague, references to people who very well may suffer from depression – treating them as undesirable, broken, and negative forces that need to be eliminated from our lives. They are dehumanized and reduced to their illness, rather than seen as whole, worthwhile, complete people.

If someone in your life is depressed or going through a difficult time, it can be tempting to run for the hills. And of course, I’ll never undermine the importance of self-care. We are responsible to our friends, but never for our friends. But there’s a consistent problem in our society with ignoring depression when we see it, or worse yet, expecting folks with this struggle to fix it themselves, and not “burden” others with what they’re going through.

This creates a culture that is particularly hostile to those with mental illnesses. Criticizing them for feeling victimized, for being unhappy, and for not meeting your criteria for “trying hard enough” or “problem-solving,” all uphold awful stereotypes about the disorder and about people who suffer from it.

Personally, I’d like to create a culture in which folks who are unhappy can find support — and that we don’t ignore or opt out the moment we realize they might not be all sunshine and rainbows.

There’s also this terrible habit in self-help to look down on this idea of “victimhood,” without being critical of where those perspectives come from. If someone is conditioned to expect that their life will be difficult, perhaps it’s not an issue with attitude, and maybe, just maybe, a problem with the culture and society at large. If someone expects that their life will be difficult, maybe that isn’t an attitude problem and instead, their lived reality.

I suspect that if you’re looking down on folks who see life as primarily a struggle, you might be some combination of white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, middle or upper class, and more generally not feeling the full gravity of systematic oppression. When we write these articles, we need to ensure we are being intersectional, and being mindful of our privilege. Invalidating victims is not self-help — it’s oppressive.

The self-help genre could benefit from taking into account that diverse life experiences condition us to form different expectations and attitudes – ones that you may not have experienced before. Instead of placing the blame on the victim, maybe we should be pointing at the system that victimizes us every day.

The reality is, depression is hard. Mental illness is hard. And it’s not something that can be fixed over night with an attitude change. We’ve been saying this for decades – this isn’t our fault, and if we could make it better, don’t you think we would’ve already done that?

Yet, at times, self-help as a genre has been completely out of touch with the lived experiences of those with mental illness, as well as other marginalized groups, like folks of color and those in poverty.

There are certainly unhealthy habits that we could all afford to kick, but placing this in the framework of chronic unhappiness and depression is the wrong way to go. It does a huge disservice to people who are genuinely doing their best to cope with these illnesses. It creates bigger obstacles for people whose lives are devastated by depression.

There are better ways to offer advice and perspective in ways that aren’t ableist, and don’t kick folks while they’re down. Regardless of our good intentions, we must consider the impact of our work when it reaches a broader audience of people.

Perhaps most importantly, people with depression do not exist to teach you life lessons. And if you have someone in your life who is “chronically unhappy,” instead of taking notes for your next article like you’re on some mentally ill safari, maybe reaching out to them and checking in is the more appropriate response.

Self-help is a genre with a lot of potential to do good in the world. But if it only seeks to empower some while upholding the struggles of others, it is doing more harm than good. There needs to be accountability to our audiences, starting with those who are struggling the most.

Creating a greater stigma around depression, rather than dismantling that stigma, is the exact opposite of what self-help should be doing.

This genre could really benefit from a reality check. And maybe, just maybe, it could start by realizing that there are better ways to approach the “chronically unhappy” and depressed – starting with a little compassion.

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14 thoughts on “The “Self-Help” Genre Has a Big Problem with Depression

  1. Laura L. says:

    Yes, yes and yes! I’ve done mini-rants on this myself. There IS a legitimate reason to remove “negative” people from our lives but so often this step is just an excuse for bad behavior that can be paraded as something positive, “Oh, life is too short for negative people, I just walked away.” Applause.

    It is so much easier to self-righteously walk away from someone who is depressed than stay around to support them. Getting punched in the face? Walk away. Your “loved” one is having trouble getting out of bed because of depression? You’re probably a selfish jerk if you walk away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Yesssssss. If any of those mini-rants exist on the interwebs, don’t hesitate to link them! I’d love to read them and I’m sure others would as well.

      It takes courage to support a loved one through depression. I know it because I’ve been on the receiving AND giving end of that support. And if you can’t handle it, by all means, take a breather. But walking away without trying, and writing an article encouraging others to do the same, is really irresponsible.

      Like

  2. DeeScribes says:

    As someone who does not have depression or a mental illness diagnosis, I will be honest and say I do struggle with my friends who are constantly, chronically depressed and negative. I do want to support them, but I have to do so in moderation or else I find myself ready to throw up my hands and walk away saying something to myself along the lines of, “I can’t offer you anything else!”

    I have learned to listen, and reflect the emotion or feeling I hear from my friends, acknowledging where they are but not trying to “make it better” or “fix things.” I am a “fixer” and perpetual optimist, and I know some of my friends feel comfortable enough to tell me to just go away and be positive somewhere else. I have a friend who is transitioning, recovering from facial surgery, and when I ask, “How can I best support you or be a friend today?” she is honest about where she is at. I don’t try to sugar coat or make light of her issues or feelings. She tells me when my “things could be worse” mentality is too much. We make it work because she knows I genuinely care, and I know she feels comfortable enough with me to be authentic. You raise many important points and I hope they will make people think about this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Moderation is absolutely key — and encouraging those folks to cast their support net broadly and widely, building a system of support rather than a single crutch, is vital. It’s really hard work. I can empathize; my fiance has depression and even I, with my own experiences, struggle with being supportive from time to time.

      I’m glad that you put in that work and I hope you continue to take care of yourself!

      Like

    • Laura L. says:

      I’m so happy to read you ask! Such a simple concept but few do it. I cringed, at first, when you said you are a fixer and perpetual optimist, because my experience with that is people who are the antithesis of helpful. A simple, “Is there anything I can do?” sincerely meant, works wonders, even if the answer is “no.” And, yes, chronically depressed people are sometimes hard to be around. Taking a breather to regroup is not the same as “life is too short for negative people.” Your people are lucky to have such a friend.

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  3. ritlingit says:

    Thanks for this article. I’ve been reading these types of self help advice columns that are general and destructive and oh so self righteous. One of the saddest things is that not only do these writings and opinions help perpetrate stigma they create schisms between people with different diagnosis. I have had major depressive episodes in my life that lasted from 2 months to 3 years. A close friend of mine, unipolar, never experienced a depressive episode would chide me and cajole me and regale me with what I should do to be “happy” and to “get myself out of feeling down”. This is a person who has experience with NAMi and wrote a Mental Illness handbook for lecturing to kids about what it is like having mental illness. Last year after just having had enough being told how I should live my life she did a turn around, told me I was a “bad friend” and dumped me.
    That actually helped. I stopped taking her calls. I stopped and thought about what I allowed the people around me who said I was “bad” for doing this for being that and decided that I’d stop apologizing to ignoramuses for being myself. Okay, I’m not perfect. I still get angry about the idiots who spew these stupid platitudes and post dumb stuff on walls. For the most part I pass on people who are willing to judge me for things they’ve no clue about.
    I recently got back in touch with that friend I stopped being with. I don’t expect her to change. I don’t argue with her about her definition of good and bad. I enjoy being with her until I start to feel put out then I just go home. I know I can always opt out and take a very long break if I have to.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mariah says:

    “Perhaps most importantly, people with depression do not exist to teach you life lessons. And if you have someone in your life who is “chronically unhappy,” instead of taking notes for your next article like you’re on some mentally ill safari, maybe reaching out to them and checking in is the more appropriate response.” – excellent advice! And while I understand the human impulse to fix things, including people- I myself have attempted that- it’s more helpful to say, as DeeScribes said, “How can I best support you or be a friend today?” I find this same ableist attitude comes up in certain Christian circles, with the idea that prayer and faith can heal- and that, if you’re still stuck in your depression, then you haven’t prayed hard enough/don’t have enough faith. A friend of mine during Bible study, when we were examining Jesus’ words on worry in Matthew 6, said that “anxiety is a sin.” Sure, Jesus says not to worry, but a sin? As if a depressed/anxious person isn’t feeling bad enough, now we can add the guilt and self-berating that we’re not good, not trying hard enough, etc. If only people would realize that depression and anxiety aren’t rational, and aren’t easily under one’s control. Yes, we can take steps to help ourselves- when we have gentle encouragement and the strength within ourselves to do so. But sometimes, it’s beyond us, and it’s time that others stopped blaming us for our illnesses. Thanks, Sam, as always, for your thoughtful and well-written post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. katherinedmclover says:

    I agree with most of this! And in fact, this is something that I have thought of from time to time whenever one of those “8 habbits of happy people” or “6 ways to stop making yourself unhappy NOW” show up in my facebook feed. But. I have one tiny little but.

    But I think PART OF the problem comes from conflating “sadness” with “depression.” This isn’t really a problem with you, it’s a problem with our culture, but I think the more we recognize that those words are not synonyms, the better off we’ll be. Because some people might appreciate some suggestions for how to better deal with SADNESS, but to offer those same suggestions to someone with DEPRESSION typically just ends up being cruel. And I realize that, for some, the lines between these things can blur, but I still think they are different things, and need to be treated as such.

    To use my own life as an example – I suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and usually have at least one depressive episode a year. These depressive episodes are typically really hard on me, but I don’t often experience them as “sadness” exactly. However, I am also a human, which means that – SURPRISE – I sometimes get sad even when I am not depressed!
    When I’m sad, there are lots of things that can sometimes help, such as trying to find the root of why I’m unhappy and seeing what I can do to change it. Maybe I can do something that brings me joy and see if that helps. Or maybe it’s just going to take time, and I need to fall back on the Buddhist principle that “happy” is not the only relevant way to feel in the world.
    But when I’m in the middle of a depressive episode? Yeah, none of that is going to do a damn thing. In my particular case, the only thing that “helps” at all (and I put ‘helps’ in scare quotes because it doesn’t actually make me any less depressed) is reminding myself that all of my previous experiences predict that this will not last forever, and to try to be kind to myself, and be as functional as I can in the meantime while I wait for whatever it is that happens in my brain to stop happening.

    And again, that’s one person’s experience, and maybe I’m WAAAAY off track for a lot of others. But I think a good step for us (and the self help genre/industry) to take towards de-stigmatizing mental illness is to STOP seeing our depressed friends/family/loved ones as simply “chronically unhappy.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jay says:

    I agree with this so much. Last year I struggled enormously with PTSD – I couldn’t sleep, go outside, think, but I still somehow managed to force myself to pretend to be a normal person and then just collapsed the minute I was on my own. This year I’ve been having conversations with certain friends who while I was really close to them, and knew i was struggling, didn’t really make any effort to help me more than tell me that it was all in my head. What they’ve said to me more recently is like ‘ oh i wonder now if there was anything more I could have done to help you’. Like yeah there definitely was, and had you just asked ‘what can I do to help?’ I would have told you. When you’re mentally ill (and being permanently told you’re too negative and having none of your small accomplishments like getting dressed mean anything to anyone) asking directly for help is really hard. If you know someone who needs help, don’t assume you know how best to help them. You are their friend, not their doctor, communicate with them and just be present.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Anna B. says:

    Honestly, as a person with Severe and Chronic depression, I don’t feel like Self Help genre books are equating “negative people” with depressed people. What I do find is an issue, however is their propensity- in this genre- to use “Negative” as a catch all term for anything that’s not, essentially, “rainbows and sunshine” all the time. They push an unnatural and unhealthy level of happiness on the reader, and code the word “negativity” in such a way that it borders on the support and promotion of a state of Reality Detachment and complete psychological disillusionment. This coding also often ignores the fact that there are very extreme, definable differences between “Depressed’ (as an emotion), “Depression” (as a disorder), Negativity, Pessimism, and Destructive negativity and sabotage. Instead it’s all coded as “Happy, Detached, and Disillusioned” as good, and “anything not” as bad. Yes, that includes depression, but I don’t feel like that specifically codes “Negativity” as Depression and Depression only.

    Another problem I have with the genre is the fact that it does completely ignore the fact that Depression and other mood disorders are just that- illnesses which require medical diagnosis and treatment- not simply an emotion to be overcome (though “depression” as an emotion can be helped with their methods and is not the same thing as “Depression” as a psychological and Mental illness). I find it far more offensive, personally, that they like to scream “just be happy” at you, and ignore the very real medical causes of these disorders that often correctly require treatment through the use of prescription drugs dispensed at the hands of medical professionals and not some person in their basement writing a free kindle book.

    Honestly, I think the book “Life-You’re Doing It Wrong: Why People Don’t Get Better Results in Self- Improvement and what to do about it.” said it best about the whole genre in so many ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. dbp49 says:

    A great article Sam. I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t already been said, other than to say that I agree with your position on this wholeheartedly. It’s so ridiculous at times that I’ve had people tell me because I know what the cause of my PTSD is, then the symptoms should go away, and if they don’t, it’s because I’m not being positive enough. I’ll read you later.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. kat says:

    After many years of effort I had managed to pull myself out of my depression, was doing well, was moving forward in life… and then I got sick.

    I apparently had a serious progressive genetic condition and pushing myself too hard in school (going days without sleep for example) and something finally snapped and now I’m in pretty bad shape and will likely have a short lifespan and will never be able to work.

    Whenever I tell someone about this I am told “stop being so negative”

    It was bad enough when I got it because of the depression, because at least it -was- at least mostly in my head then. But what people are now pushing what is only false hope. There is no real TREATMENT for my condition, let alone a cure and remission is basically unheard of unless you only just got your diagnosis and are trying everything for the first time. I’ve already exhausted every treatment option other then stuff like feeding tubes and apparently they won’t give those to fat people so I’ll have to starve for a few more years before that happens.

    I have lost a lot of friends for complaining about being sick and not being able to get anyone to help me. I don’t know why “positive” people are supposedly better to be around honestly. Most of the “positive” people I know cut me out of their lives or verbally harass me over my illness. You see, to maintain a positive outlook on life you need to believe life is fair. And 25 year old who worked their ass off the first 20 years of their life in school being nursing home candidates because they were born that way isn’t fair.

    I’m proof against their world view so it’s easier to blame me for my misfortune then to accept sometimes there isn’t anything you can do.

    I don’t have a single friend left that doesn’t have depression. The people who didn’t all abandoned me. My very existence is too negative for positive thinkers.

    Liked by 1 person

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