Happy, wealthy and successful people can be depressed – stop saying these things to people who struggle with mental health illness

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain
Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain

Last week the world was rocked by the deaths of two beloved celebrity figures many people looked up to: Kate Spade, popular and successful handbag designer and celebrity chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain – both of whom we lost to suicide according to reports on Refinery29 and Food24.com respectively.

Needless to say my social media feed has been gut-wrenchingly sad.

From people sharing what these wonderful celebrities have meant to them, to discussions around mental health illness, particularly suicide, one of the strongest sentiments that have emerged in the midst of the outpouring of support – is how surprised many people are because both these celebrities appeared to have had so much to live for.

A sentiment that I feel is rather dangerous because I feel that it equates the idea that being wealthy and successful automatically means being happy.

Unfortunately, this kind of attitude is only one of many assumptions that people have about people who battle with depression or any mental health illness. An article on Refinery29 reveals that Kate actually struggled with mental health issues but wasn’t keen to seek treatment because she was worried that being admitted to hospital would hurt her brand’s “happy image.”

There’s this idea that depression and mental health illness need to look a certain way for them to be considered a valid experience, but the truth is that people experience mental health struggles so very differently.

By all appearances Bourdain had, as many people have been saying, “so much to live for.”  But is it really fair of us to compare his level of happiness to the material wealth and amazing opportunities that he was surrounded by?

And who gets to decide who gets to have depression based on their wealth status? Money should apparently have the ability to magic away emotional and mental health struggles.

READ MORE: Willow Smith bravely revealed a painful secret that affects too many SA teens and young adults

The assumptions behind mental health disorders remind me of the time I stumbled across a thread that quickly went viral for all the wrong reasons.

The thread was by a kickboxer named Andrew Tate and in a series of tweets he reinforced negative stereotypes and stigmas surrounding depression.

To summarise his ignorant rant (the thread has since been deleted), he states that depression is a concept that is made up and one that is used by people as a crutch to avoid taking responsibility for whatever shortcomings they have.

He also claims that depressed people are lazy and can be cured simply by changing their lifestyle.

Mental health illness is a tricky area to navigate because people find it hard to equate an illness they can’t see as a valid diagnosis

Needless to say, he received a tremendous amount of backlash.

And with good reason, because not only are assumptions like his based on a skewed viewpoint of mental health illnesses, but his conversation around it is actively harmful and dangerous to those who suffer from depression and are potentially suicidal.

In light of his obnoxious thread, I’ve decided to highlight what it’s like living with depression, why the negative thinking around the illness needs to disappear and how people who don’t have any form of mental health illness can learn to be more supportive of those who do.

Depression doesn’t mean we’re lazy

One of the stereotypes about people with depression (and one that is touched on in the aforementioned series of tweets) is that men and women who have any form of acute depression are unhappy with their lives and are too lazy to change it.

But here’s the thing:  Mental health illness is a tricky area to navigate because people find it hard to equate an illness they can’t see as a valid diagnosis.

I can almost understand why many are so hesitant to see it as a real illness.

Almost - except not quite because Google is your friend and there are a lot of online resources that can educate you and provide you with detailed information - this article on Health24 for example – about how chemical and hormonal imbalances are just some of the factors that can be contributed as leading factors when it comes to diagnosing someone with a mental health illness.

READ MORE: Let’s talk about depression

I mean, sure, depression can manifest itself as sadness, but most simply think it’s only a mood related issue and that happy thoughts will fix the problem. And sadness somehow equates to laziness, because that’s so much easier to accept than having to deal with someone who genuinely needs help.

I suffer from depression and you need to know that there’s a difference between feeling sad and being depressed.

When I’m sad I at least am able to function. I can get out of bed, go to work and still be productive (there goes your lazy theory). I can push through that heavy mood and still talk to people.

The narrative that those who have mental health issues should just snap out of it is actually a pretty horrible form of gaslighting

Depression doesn’t come with that functionality – it’s debilitating in the sense that it robs you of any will to do anything and everything, be it something you love to do or something that’s simply part of your daily routine.

It’s not that I want to stay in bed, curled up in foetal position the whole day, it’s simply that I can’t get up in that moment. To me, those bad days feel like I’m wading through a mud slide – trying to reach the top for safety, but unable to because the sludge coming down leaves me feeling paralysed by my inability.

So no Andrew, my depression isn’t my fault. It isn’t an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for my so-called failures in life and it certainly isn’t because my lifestyle is lacking.

It’s a different experience for everyone which is why people just can’t wake up and suddenly have a new outlook on life.

No, we can’t just snap out if it

The problem, as our kickboxer friend clearly demonstrates, is that (many) people who don’t suffer from any form of depressive disorder don’t understand or empathise with those who do - and this is exactly one of the many reasons why people are scared to get help.

The narrative that those who have mental health issues should just snap out of it is actually a pretty horrible form of gaslighting. It took me years to build up the courage to actively seek help – and that was only because I had people in my corner who believed that going to a psychiatrist and psychologist would help me.  

Before that, I’ve always been told that it’s in my head, that I’m making it up and that, if other people can get through hard days, then so can I. When someone needs help, the last thing you should be doing is dismissing them. Do you know what it feels like when people don't take your illness seriously?

READ MORE: Thuli Madonsela’s daughter speaks out about her struggle with depression in heartfelt Facebook post

Ignoring someone who is ill is tantamount to pushing them away when they’re trying to reach out. If someone is lying on the floor in pain, you’re not going to step over the person and keep walking, right?

My depression landed me in hospital twice and a life path clinic once.

And each time I’ve been fortunate that my loved ones never once accused me of crying wolf. I should add here that for many of us, our depression cannot simply be cured, but it definitely can be managed.  

Do I still have bad days?

Of course, but the point is that I’m on medication that helps me more than eating more fruit and veggies ever have (another moot point the kickboxer-turned-psychiatrist seems keen to promote).

It’s a different experience for everyone which is why people just can’t wake up and suddenly have a new outlook on life. That’s not how chemical imbalances, life stressors and debilitating anxiety works.

READ MORE: Facts about depression and symptoms to look out for

If you’re suffering from depression, are having suicidal thoughts or suspect you might need help with any issues pertaining to your mental health, visit The South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

They have support groups and offer emergency helplines to those in need of help.

You can contact a counsellor between 8am-8pm Monday to Sunday on: 011 234 4837

There is also a suicidal emergency contact number - 0800 567 567 as well as a 24 hour helpline, the number of which is as follows: 0800 12 13 14

Do you suffer from depression? What helps you to cope? We'd love to hear from you.

WATCH: 12 things not to say to people who have depression

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