“Are you going to CAPS?”
A question I have been asked many a time, upon divulging the fact that I am sad, or distressed, or scared, or feeling unstable. To answer the question: no. I am, in fact, in therapy. But I use a separate system that has proven to be much better for my overall mental health. That is not the point of this piece. What I want to talk about is my loved ones, and my not-so loved ones, who feel that this is an appropriate question to ask.
It is concerning for me since I am mostly very open about my mental illness. It is a chronic condition, and I’ve settled into a rhythm of reluctant acceptance that allows me to continue my life plans in relative peace. It irks me for a very simple reason — the question implies that there is something inherently wrong with being sad, angry or not-in-control in a given moment. As a human being, my life is just a series of volatile states — at some point, I will feel sad. So, when I express such feelings, I wish that people would react with something a little less solution-oriented. Not that I would mind a cure to sadness, but the universe as we know it has not seen it fit to bequeath such information upon us. Maybe a hug, an “I hope you feel better” or words of consolation.
What I do not want to hear in my moment of impairment is this: “Have you sought out the help of a professional to mitigate this negative emotion [that every single person on earth has and will continue to have experienced]?”
I have. And, I will get sad anyway. In fact, that very Mental Health Professional that every continuously refers me to will tell me to talk to my friends and use them as a resource. I don’t need you to be my therapist. Would I appreciate you listening to my troubles? Yes. Do I appreciate your concern for me? Absolutely. Do I need a solution? Absolutely not.
What that question tells me is that in your eyes, I am not doing a good enough job of managing my mental health. What that question tells me is that it is not natural (or right) to be feeling negative emotions. What that question tells me is that whatever I do to hide or alleviate or suppress my negative feelings is not enough. And who wants to be told that they’re not doing enough? Who wants to be criticized for mishandling their emotional states when they are in an emotional state?
It is already difficult enough to try to handle my emotional well-being behind the scenes, because even that is stigmatized. To further add insult to injury by telling me that my ram-shackle trying-to-act-like-a-mentally-balanced-person act is not enough for you is infuriating.
Maybe it is the product of the culture we are in, that sadness is seen as an inefficiency, that there was some optimization issue somewhere along the line. Well, it’s time to correct that. Sadness is natural and being sadder than the average person most of the time is natural.
I feel that I have a very solid grounding in my own understanding of my emotions and how my depression works. This means for me that I do not think of myself as a “victim” of depression as much as someone who has a depression-altered scope of the world — it is not something that is in control of me, I am in control of it. Most of the time. And so, my depression is not something to be cured, it is simply a part of me. There are ways to alleviate the symptoms, as depression is one of the most curable of mental illnesses. However, this does not mean I will ever be whatever people perceive as “normal.” And that is the very thing that needs to be normalized — abnormality is not a sign of sickness, as the term “mental illness” would imply. I am not a patient on a sick-bed waiting for my prognosis. I am actively fighting this, and I know how to fight it. I don’t need my friends, who have their own lives, problems and feelings, to solve it for me. I just need you to listen.
So I ask of you, instead of telling me that you don’t know how to help me, just tell me you’re listening. That you heard what I said — that I’m feeling stressed out about my classes, that my crush didn’t work out, that I have to reshuffle my schedule for the umpteenth time. I know how to help myself, and this is why I have confided in you. So please, don’t try to solve something that psychologist and psychopharmacologists have been working on for decades. Just listen.
— James Schneider ’20
Contact James Schneider at fschneid ‘at’ stanford.edu.