A psychiatrist tackles 7 dangerous myths about depression

Dr. Diane McIntosh wants to do more to dispel stigma and misunderstanding surrounding depression.

Dr. Diane McIntosh wants to do more to dispel stigma and misunderstanding surrounding depression

Organizations that work with Calgary’s South Asian community say they’re seeing a big jump in the numbers of people that need help with deteriorating mental health issues like depression as the pandemic drags on. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

According to the Ontario Ministry of Health, one in four Canadians will experience depression that is serious enough to warrant treatment sometime in their lives. Yet despite its ubiquity, and a lot of high-profile awareness campaigns, it's still widely misunderstood.

Dr. Diane McIntosh wrote This is Depression: A Comprehensive, Compassionate Guide because she wants to do more to dispel the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding depression. McIntosh is a clinical psychiatrist and a professor at the University of British Columbia. In a recent interview, she told us about the most common misconceptions that she encounters about depression and offered her insight on the potential negative effects of these false beliefs. 

Myth 1: Depression is due to weakness

McIntosh says that people who are experiencing depression are especially vulnerable to this most common misconception that depressions stems from weakness or some kind of character defect. "When you're suffering from depression, your brain lies to you," she says. "It tells you: you're weak; you're a failure; you've done this to yourself; you're wrong." These kinds of beliefs are harmful because, says McIntosh, "they make people less willing to seek help or even admit they have a problem."

She says the idea that everyone gets sad and stressed and that most of us deal with it, leads some to believe that depression is simply a failure to "suck it up" and cope with adversity. This is a mistake. Depression is an illness which affects your body and brain, not an overblown reaction to stress.

Myth 2: Being depressed is the same as being sad

Most people associate depression with sadness. However, says McIntosh, "There are a thousand ways that people can look when they are depressed and being sad is not always part of it." In fact, McIntosh says that anhedonia — not taking pleasure from the things you normally enjoy — can be a more salient symptom of depression than sadness. "If you usually dote on your grandkids but then you don't care if you ever see them again, that's anhedonia. Your interest in things falls off." This can happen with anything, including food, sex and hobbies. She says that if you find that you're no longer getting anything out of your habitual pleasures, this may be a sign of depression, whether you feel sad or not.

Myth 3: Alternative treatments are all effective

McIntosh thinks this myth is half-true. Many alternative (meaning "not talk therapy or drugs") treatments for depression are effective. According to McIntosh, "We've got growing evidence that yoga, mindfulness meditation, light therapy, and even petting your kitty have therapeutic effects, but physical exercise has the best evidence by far."

However, many treatments that are touted as depression remedies have no evidence to back them up. McIntosh cited homeopathy, detoxes, cannabis, and anti-inflammatory diets as popular but unproven treatments of depression. "A healthy diet can be protective, but you can't blueberry your way out of a depression." Therefore it's important to do your research and consult your physician when deciding on a treatment strategy.

Myth 4: Depression medications are addictive and will turn you into a zombie

In her psychiatry practice, McIntosh has encountered many people who fear that depression medication will change their personality and that they'll become addicted to them for the rest of their lives. Worse still, says McIntosh, "A lot of these people come by these beliefs honestly. They've had bad experiences with medication."

However, she explains that having a bad experience doesn't mean that medication is a bad treatment option. As McIntosh puts it, "Antidepressants are not addictive. And if you are a zombie on your meds, then you are on the wrong meds." Bad reactions to medication can stem from a misdiagnosis or from choosing the wrong drug. McIntosh says you can't expect to be cured the moment you start taking pills. "It's frustrating, but sometimes you have to try more than one. Finding the right meds takes time. It's a process." When considering drugs, McIntosh advises working with your physician to understand the best choices for you.

Myth 5: Nobody wants to hear about your depression, not even your doctor

Because of the stigma around mental illness, many who suffer from depression believe that others will judge them if they find out they're struggling with depression or don't think anyone can help. Often, says McIntosh, these beliefs are so strong that they won't even raise the topic with their family doctor.

If you think you may be depressed, then McIntosh says you should speak to your doctor or find one at a walk-in clinic. "Helping people with depression and anxiety is a massive part of any family practice." It's literally their job and they are very used to it. They're not going to judge anyone for being depressed, so don't be ashamed or embarrassed.

Whether or not you should share with others is more complicated. "In an ideal world, everyone would be there for you  and support your recovery with compassion and understanding." Unfortunately, says McIntosh, "We can't pretend that stigma and ignorance isn't real." McIntosh recommends testing the waters first and seeking advice from someone you trust before disclosing your depression more broadly or in the workplace.

Myth 6: You know how to help others with depression

According to McIntosh, the most common misconception about supporting people with depression is that you already know how to support people with depression. It's common to try to cheer people up, to distract them, or to ask them to talk about it. Any of these responses may be helpful, but it's impossible to know ahead of time.

McIntosh says that the best way to find out what someone who's suffering from depression needs from you is to ask them. "Some people want to talk about it. Some people would prefer distraction. Sometimes they just need a babysitter so they can make it to therapy or someone to accompany them to their first appointment. If you want to help, ask. "

Myth 7: Depression is just a psychological condition

All mental illnesses, says McIntosh, have psychological, biological, and social causes. Biological factors such as genes, hormone balance, may predispose people to certain conditions. And so will psychological factors such as personality and coping mechanisms. But social factors, which McIntosh sees as all the external things that happen to you, also have a major effect. "No one gets depressed for one reason. There are always biological and psychological and social factors."

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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