OK, so I recently spent some time in another post worrying about the fractured nature of mental health advocacy groups and campaigns, but I never said I didn’t like the campaigns themselves or the messages they come up with- I just want to see a little more cooperation and coordination. In fact a recent campaign that I think can help people shed some misconceptions about mental health is #goodbyeheadclutcher. While I probably read more articles than the average person about depression, anxiety, mental illness, etc. it’s hard for anyone not to notice how these articles are almost always accompanied by a stock photo of someone clutching their head, often crying or with a pained look on their face. It can be difficult to convey something that doesn’t really present external symptoms. I know that I’ve struggled here sometimes to use an image in some of my own posts to underscore whatever point I’m making about how I’m feeling. But the problem with the head clutcher stock photo is that it doesn’t really show what depression or anxiety are actually like, and it contributes to a lot of misunderstanding about what people go through.
In my own experience, I can’t really recall ever grabbing my head in some kind of Shakespearean anguish as I wailed. I would carry my depression inside when I was with people, presenting a smiling face and, I like to think, a pretty jovial front most of the time. Of course, in my case this was aided by alcohol. If you go back and listen to my conversation with my friend Alanna you’ll hear me talk about how I tried to create the impression that everything was fine and internalized everything. Even when I was alone I would rarely ever break down and cry or grab my hair like you see in so many of these photos. My depression would manifest itself as lethargy, I’d come home, get a drink and then just zone out. When I ws living alone I’d spend whole weekends laying in bed watching Netflix until noon, getting up to microwave something, wash it down with a beer, sit down on the couch and keep watching and drinking, doze off, microwave something for dinner, drink, watch Netflix until I dozed off again and then do the same thing the next day. I wasn’t a head clutcher, I was either the friendly drunk or the couch potato.
What I like about the #goodbyeheadclutcher campaign is that it’s helping to break this stereotype that people with mental illness are always curled in the fetal position crying and with some kind of physical pain. When that picture becomes the definitive face of mental illness it worries me. It can create the impression in the mind of someone who may be experiencing depression that unless they present like that, they aren’t depressed, which can discourage them from seeking help. It can also set expectations among others that if a person isn’t exhibiting those dramatic symptoms then they aren’t really depressed and they may question a persons motivations for seeking help and treatment. Or, even if a person has been open about their depression and is getting tretment or in therapy, they may seem all better. But we know that major depression can be episodic, and just because they’re on an upswing or feeling better doesn’t mean they’re cured. One of the things I try and tell people is that I’m managing the depression. In some ways it’s like someone who manages diabetes through proper diet and insulin. They’re still diabetic, just like I still have depression even though I’m doing a pretty good job managing it through therapy, medication and practicing mindfulness.
People who struggle with depression may put on a happy face in social situations, bottling up their emotions. Or they may be that person who gets labeled as lazy and unmotivated. In the weeks leading up to my suicide attempt I was going out with friends and family members to basketball games, trivia nights and dinners. I laughed and I joked. The picture accompanying this post was taken a few days before I tried to kill myself. The face of depression isn’t always what you may think it is, and pushing back against the head clutching stereotype is a good way to help people see that.