When I was a young rabbi, I encountered someone with depression. I vividly remember thinking to myself, why can’t he just snap out of it? What does he mean when he says he sleeps most of the day and can’t concentrate on anything? We are all tired and dealing with stress. Just resolve to get out of bed and get going. I could not understand why he was so depressed. After all, by all measures, his life was pretty good. If he were to just focus on the blessings and simply choose to be positive, he wouldn’t be depressed at all.
I am incredibly grateful that I didn’t articulate any of these sentiments to him. But nevertheless, I feel ashamed and guilty for having been so ignorant and insensitive to what depression is.
We perpetrate a terrible disservice by using the same word to describe how we feel when our favorite team gets knocked out of the playoffs as we do to describe an illness that can be debilitating and incapacitating. Clinical depression is not feeling blue or down in the dumps. It is an illness which can result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.
Over 800 years ago, Rabbeinu Yonah nailed it, writing: “Although there is a beneficial aspect to sadness in that it prevents people from becoming overly joyous over the pleasures of this world, nevertheless, one should not pursue the state of sadness, since it is a physical disease. When a person is despondent, he is not able to serve his Creator properly.” The Talmud (Shabbos 30b) speaks of an evil spirit that is so dangerous it can be lethal. The Rambam’s commentary explains, “The evil spirit is referring to melancholy. There is a type of melancholy that will cause the ill person to lose his mind when he sees light or when he is among other people. He finds peace only in darkness, solitude, and desolate places.”
Putting it into Context
Like any illness, depression necessitates love, patience, understanding, and support from family and friends. However, for the most part, while people extend themselves remarkably for someone recovering from cancer or another physical condition, the same is not done for people with depression. Those suffering often feel alone and neglected. For those with physical illness, we cook meals, shop for groceries, babysit children, or send a text to check in. For those with depression, we keep hushed for fear of an uncomfortable interaction.
Depression is no more the fault of the person who has it than an illness such as Alzheimer’s is. Just as an individual with Alzheimer’s cannot simply determine to stop forgetting, someone with depression cannot decide to not feel worthless or exhausted.
It is terribly unfortunate and unacceptable that depression remains stigmatized. Having a physical illness is not a source of embarrassment or guilt. Similarly, having depression, equally out of one’s control, should not be a source of shame or inadequacy.
Changes We Must Make
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a perfect time to refine our approach to Depression. As we resolve to be more sensitive, please consider the following:
- Don’t use the term “depressed” unless it is clinically appropriate and certainly do not use it in a joking manner. Find another way to say you are bummed out. Saying you are depressed over a minor issue or as a joke minimizes the suffering of someone struggling with true depression.
- Never assume you know everything going on in someone’s life or what motivates his or her behavior. Ian Maclaren, the 19th-century Scottish author, once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
- When you know a friend or family member has depression, be as supportive as you would be with someone suffering with a physical illness. Offer help, check in, and just let them know you are thinking of them. Often, depression is chronic. Once diagnosed, it can be controlled, lessened, or go into remission. But it is never cured. Support will always be needed in some form.
- When reaching out to someone with depression, do not be critical or make comparisons. Simply listen, be present, and be a friend.
- When someone has depression, it places a tremendous burden on other members of the family who often need to take over responsibilities or produce greater income. Go out of your way to check in and seek to unburden them.
Time for Change
In 2001, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot courageously wrote publicly about his own experiences with depression. He concluded with a call that unfortunately remains as relevant today:
“It is long past time for us all to break the silence and speak openly about mental illness, not just at conferences of Orthodox mental health professionals, but in the public forums of our schools and yeshivot, our conventions and fora, and in the pages of our newspapers and publications. In much of our frum (religious) world, despite the fact that significant progress has been made, the vestiges of these stigmas linger on. It is time for this last stigma to fall and fall quickly in the spirit of menshlichkeit (good character attributes), rachmanut (mercilessness), and the recognition that we are all created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God).”