It’s hard to talk about depression. Those who reveal their experience with mental illness open themselves up to the stigma and criticism that surround the subject. But it’s time for us to start talking, and the way we do that matters.
In 2017, around 40 percent of college students said they had felt so depressed in the past year that it was difficult to function, according to a survey of more than 63,000 students from the American College Health Association.
What makes this growing epidemic even more difficult is finding the right way to talk about it.
On Oct. 11, California Lutheran University Counseling and Psychological Services will host an event in partnership with Wellness Resources titled “Blow Depression Away.” While the strides being taken to advance the conversation about depression are commendable, this title is one that raises some concerns.
Kaitlyn Sloniker, a Wellness intern who helped plan the event, said the day will feature activities like the chance to use large bubble wands to blow bubbles and a trivia wheel to teach students more about depression.
Coordinator of Recreational Sports and Wellness Ryan Kolter said that in the past, this event has taken the form of CAPS-sponsored tabling inviting students to look at a checklist to see if they show signs of depression. This year, Beth Turner, the outreach coordinator and staff psychologist at CAPS, partnered with Wellness Resources to brainstorm a new version of the event.
“She [Turner] was looking for a way to rebrand it. We wanted to create something that seemed less intimidating and clinical,” Kolter said.
The intention to reach out and relate to students is commendable, but a student diagnosed with depression who looks at the event poster is likely to feel that it makes light of his or her experience. The wording and imagery imply that depression is something with a quick fix, when in reality the process of coping and healing is often a long and painful one. Depression is not something someone can “blow away,” and to say this is hurtful and dismissive, even when this is not the intent.
“Depression is something that we typically manage. It’s not something that can be cured like a common cold,” psychology professor Amanda ElBassiouny said. “I think that when we say something like ‘blow it away’ it kind of seems like we can cure ourselves of it.”
Throwing the word “depression” in makes a strong statement for an event that was meant to be a lighter take on the topic.
“Beth had asked us to see if we could get some type of cute name for it, maybe like a pun, so our staff came up with some of the ideas. We submitted three of them and this was the one that Beth liked the most after consulting with the rest of her staff,” Sloniker said.
The problem isn’t with the event itself–continuing to educate students on depression is invaluable. When we can recognize the symptoms in ourselves and our friends, we can better open the conversation. However, the oversight in the process of picking a name has the potential to stifle positive outcomes.
Unfortunately, this insensitive title may be the product of society’s dismissal and misunderstanding of mental illness, which is evident even in the conversations we have.
For example, insensitivity can show up when we use psychological terms in regular conversations. It is important to call out friends for saying ‘You’re so bipolar’ or ‘That’s depressing.’ Language perpetuates misinformation about what the actual disorders are, and minimizes the experiences of people who have lived it.
Kolter said differentiating between sadness and actual depression was actually one of the focuses of “Blow Depression Away.” He said the event aims to address what behaviors are linked to clinical depression as opposed to feeling down.
“I think it’s important to be sensitive to people who are experiencing it [depression] and also spreading correct information for people who have not experienced it,” ElBassiouny said.
Moving forward, we need to be sensitive about the way we approach depression and mental illness. Whether it’s adjusting the titles of future campus events or resisting the instinct to tell our friends ‘I’m depressed about that test,’ there are easy ways to help reduce the stigma and take the topic of mental illness seriously.