Smiling Depression

Oh hey.

I bet every person reading this has at least one group text they’re a part of.  This afternoon, one of my friends sent a message to our group text, and it included a link to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website. Obviously I’m clicking. The link took me to a promotion for Mental Health Awareness Month. There were a few catchy educational points, and a two minute video: Talk Away the Dark. 

Cue the Sarah McLaughlan song from the ASPCA commercials. 

The video has sad music, and a handful of scenes between a teenage girl and her father, who is very clearly suffering from depression.  The father is melancholy, his non-verbal expression is sad, and he’s exhibiting very evident warning signs of suicidal ideation. 

I love that she shared this!   I LOVE that we’re talking about it.  I love that people are talking about it in my circle of friends, and in my small community, and I love that AFSP has people talking about it nationwide.

Ya’ll know me well enough by now to know there’s a but coming.  

My concern is that we continue to promote the same picture of what depression looks like.  If you ask 100 people in America to describe someone who is depressed, I bet at least 99 of them would describe the man in the video.  

And then there was Deegan.

When I started making social media posts a few months ago, kids began reaching out to me.  They comment on Deegan’s story, or share their own struggles.  Parents started reaching out as well.  What I find interesting is that when the parents write to me, they tell me about how their child struggles with depression, and they describe the bullying, and the self isolation, and all of the other things that you would expect when I tell you that someone is depressed.  The kids, on the other hand, paint a very different picture.  

The kids tell me about how they have all of the things.  I hear about parents that love them, the sports they play, and the fun they have with their friends.  I also hear that even when they’re in a social environment with their closest friends, they can’t find their way out of the darkness. They describe being trapped in a dark tunnel that never ends, and feeling unable to see any source of light.  It’s actually kind of eerie how many of them use the same words. When I talk about how Deegan was always smiling, or trying to make people laugh, the kids relate. They say that they don’t want anyone else to experience the pain they feel, so they try to make people laugh.   Most frequently, they say this:

I’ll give you a minute to get your tissue.

We have to stop drawing the frowny face for depression.  When our kids are little, and we’re teaching them about stranger danger, we don’t teach them that “bad” people are scary looking. Appropriately, we teach them that they may look scary, but they may also look like a very kind man with the furriest of puppies.  Depression isn’t any different.  It may look like someone who is sad, and eats too much or too little.  He may sleep all day, and his grades might be dropping.  He may never want to shower, and he may give away all of his most important things.  But he may also be the kid with the best smile, and the loudest laugh.  His appetite may be just the same as it’s always been, his grades may be typical, and he may shower every day. 

The suicidal teen isn’t always the kid who has a hard time making friends, or the one that’s been bullied throughout their academic career.  He isn’t always the one who came from a broken childhood, or the one with the uninvolved parents.  Just as easily, he’s the kid that’s friends with everyone.  The athlete with a great car.  The one who comes from a loving home, and had a childhood filled with great memories.  

I think we’re doing a disservice by continuing to deliver the same message.  Instead of searching for the guy who looks sad, how about we just normalize mental health.  We need to be talking to our kids about it all the time, not just when they’re looking like the guy in the video.  Let’s start talking to them early, and make talking about mental health just as normal as talking about physical health.  I mean, why do we call it mental health anyway?  Why isn’t it just talking about your health?  Let’s make it so that a kid feels just as normal telling you that he’s not okay, as he would telling you about his tummy hurting.  Let’s make it  as normal to ask about how he’s doing mentally and emotionally, as it is to ask if his arm hurts after pitching a double header.

Our kids are our future, and it’s up to us to help them make that a better place. 

3 thoughts on “Smiling Depression”

  1. GREAT perspective and thought provoking. As a parent or adult we have to dig in and make it okay to express the darkest thoughts and feelings. We only know what our kids want us to know on a very superficial level. Parents stop there out of fear of knowing what they don’t want to know and dread potentially knowing. Dig in.

  2. This is so real and hits right in the core of every parents’ worst nightmare. I’m fine is never enough for me anymore. I dig deeper, I peel the layers to the ‘i’m fine’ comment even though it annoys them. To win this war for our children we have to normalize the sharing of the good the bad and the ugly. I know Deegans story has made me be 💯% intentional with my kids and mental health. I hope we can all do this going forward and help be the change that is needed.

  3. You are 100% correct.

    So many parents feel like there isn’t an instruction guide as it is and what if someone tells them something they don’t know what to do about.

    By you bringing this out of the dark and making these conversations more common, parents (or people in general), will be better equipped to ask and then help others.

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