Depression is the most common mental health problem, with the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics suggesting that 1 in 5 adults in Great Britain experienced some form of depression in early 2021.
Depression impacts the way people feel physically, the way they think and of course their emotions. Symptoms include feeling low and worthless, lacking motivation and interest in things usually enjoyed, feeling tired, changes to sleep patterns, changes to appetite, struggling to concentrate and/or make decisions, and experiencing suicidal thoughts. Understandably with all these symptoms depression can have a really negative impact on peoples day to day lives, their relationships, work and physical health.
I’m interested in how we talk about depression, the language we use and the metaphors which help us to express these difficult feelings. Take a break from reading this blog for a few minutes to quietly think about depression and notice what words, phrases or images come up for you.
I notice I’ve used the word ‘low’ above as one of the symptoms of depression and that’s interesting, as I often hear people say ‘I’m down’, ‘I’ve hit rock bottom’, ‘I’m on a downward spiral’ or ‘I’ve had a dip in my mood recently’. All these phrases hint at this idea of mood being on a vertical axis. Often after treatment people reverse this and say things like ‘I’m on the up’, ‘my mood is lifting’ or ‘I’m climbing up out of the pit’.
There’s also something about expressing depression as something quite tangible and physical. We may feel ‘burdened by a heavy weight’ and ‘unable to shake it off’. We are literally de-pressed. When we notice improvements then we might say ‘I feel lighter and freer’.
We might take it one step further and see depression as an enemy which we need to ‘battle’ with, some days we will feel like we are winning and other days loosing.
I love art and am never happier than when I am in an art gallery, so I’m always struck by the way colours are used to describe mood. Depression is usually linked with blue and dark colours such as grey or black. Winston Churchill is famous for describing his depression as a ‘black dog’ and look at how it is depicted in the Disney/Pixar film Inside Out.
I wonder, could changing our language help us to overcome depression? Try playing around with the metaphors you use to get creative and more flexible in the way you’re viewing things. Rather than imagining yourself sinking, focus on the idea of swimming. Don’t view the black dog as an enemy, try to make friends with it instead and be kinder to it. Imagine the weight lessening as you deal with one problem at a time. Perhaps you feel like you are stuck at the bottom of a dark pit – what help might you need? Who could you shout up to to throw a ladder down to you – what does the ladder represent?