‘Depression’ is used too loosely

The word ‘Depression’ is used so loosely we risk missing out real danger signals, Illustration: Sturt Krygsman

The Australian, 

Part of the problem we have with random acts of violence, such as the horrific Germanwings plane crash at the hands of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, is language. The words we use can change meaning, and meaning can change the world. In the case of food, for instance, we use words such as veal so we don’t conjure up anything that will upset us.

So, too, the word depression is imprecise and misused. It’s become a cover-all word for every other ailment on the planet: sadness, grief, premenstrual tension, stress, any unpleasant natural human feelings, I suspect, encouraged by the pharmaceutical companies to sell product. Statements like “depression is on the increase” are bandied about. This is actually so. But it is also true to say: “The use of the word depression is on the increase.”

Often when someone is suffering biological or severe depression, it’s taken as treatable and not too serious because a milder case of the blues, general malaise or existential crisis seems to pass when a “depressed” friend finds a job, a new love, gets slim or goes on meds. Hence we have become immunised against danger signs.

As a sufferer of chronic clinical depression I can tell the difference between extreme sadness, profound grief or other intense and unpleasant human emotions I may feel, and a state where the serotonin functions in my brain shut down and synapses don’t talk to each other. The world looks very different from inside an engine that isn’t being oiled, has turned rusty and worn from friction. It’s hard to lift one’s arms, or head off the bed, everything slows down like walking through molasses, everyone is talking backwards. Depression is that physical for me.

So by using words like depression so loosely we miss the real condition when it is in front of us. Friends of Lubitz said he’d suffered severe depression or burnout. Well, which was it? Burnout can be cured by a holiday and plenty of rest. Severe depression can sometimes mean suicidal tendencies.

Gordon Parker, head professor at the Black Dog Institute, hears clients’ precise feelings and assesses them: “No, you’re not depressed, just feeling understandably shattered that your project didn’t succeed”, or “No, you are just feeling deep grief. Get some rest.” Extensive tests are carried out to evaluate depression and, if it is present, the exact degree from mild to severe, melancholic or atypical.

Language can mask the sad truth about the suffering of animals, but also of humans. By being more precise with our descriptions, we can see reality more clearly.

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