When I told a friend I was writing a story on depression, he asked, “What about it?”
I elaborated. “People can look outwardly successful and still struggle internally with chronic feelings of despair and unworthiness.”
To that, he balled up his face in skepticism. “How often does that really happen? What do they even have to be sad about?”
That right there is the articulation of a compounded issue.
For accomplished people, the already weighty symptoms of depression are exacerbated by the imposition of other folks’ perceptions, similar to the one vocalized by said friend. It’s as if people have a right to their feelings, so long as they’re not celebrities, public figures, folks with really good jobs, millionaires, definitely not billionaires, beautiful people or anyone else who should seemingly be too busy enjoying the accoutrements of achievement to become melancholy.
We’ve seen the proof in tragic news stories, most recently the apparent suicide of Titi Branch, co-founder of the Miss Jessie’s natural-hair product empire. She was an eyeful of lovely, a serial entrepreneur driven by intelligence and supply-and-demand savvy. The joy we thought she should have been feeling—maybe even the joy she thought she should have been feeling—apparently didn’t exist, and so she made a final decision to find peace.
Conversations about high achievers and mental health, usually sparked by some kind of unfortunate event, are peppered with offhand statements like, “If I had that much money/If I looked like that/If I had that kind of job, you’d never catch me having a bad day.” But boxing in somebody else’s emotions with qualifiers is almost always dangerous—at the absolute least, it’s reductive and annoying—and can play out in mentally unhealthy ways. Not the least of which are these:
1. It can create pressure to stifle authentic feelings in favor of maintaining a facade.
2. It can force people already in emotional and mental turmoil to justify their depression, which can push them to seek solace in the self-medication of their choice.
3. It often minimizes the emotions that we all experience, and that ultimately connect us.
Making good money, shaping an impressive career and capitalizing on the benefits of higher education don’t disentitle anyone from experiencing the spectrum of human emotion; nor do they preclude anyone from clinical disorders.
In a 2012 interview with NPR, Dr. William Lawson, chair of the department of psychiatry at Howard University College of Medicine, said, “Many African Americans … may not be aware of the symptoms of many mental disorders, or they may believe that to be mentally ill is a sign of weakness or a sign of a character fault.”
Such belief is a danger to mental health. Forty percent of us are in denial about our depression. Thirty-eight percent of us are embarrassed or ashamed to be treated for it. And 31 percent don’t want or refuse help because, despite sometimes incapacitating misery and crippling hopelessness, we think we’ve got this. Particularly those of us who are used to checking items off our lists of personal and professional aspirations. If you’re accustomed to zeroing in on a goal and driving it into actualization, recovering from depression may seem like one more thing you can do yourself.
That’s not how mental-health care works, particularly since most major depressive cases need professional treatment.
By now, from the sharing of so many painful exemplifications, we’ve learned that no one is exempt from the burden of faltering mental health. But we have a hard time giving everyone that space when some of the everyones are people who seem as if they have every reason to be brimming over with glee. Beyond the enchantment of their best Instagram-ready smiles and seemingly fabulous lives is the vulnerability to experience emptiness, inferiority and anguish.
Folks will still make choices to control their own lives in ways that we may not be able to understand. Real healing as a community happens when all people feel comfortable taking off the masks of their own making and feeling that they can be real—first with themselves, then with the people around them—about what they’re experiencing emotionally.