Frontlines – The distinction between depression and unhappiness

Countless volumes have been written about what is depression. It has been categorised, pathologised, labelled and commodified by armies of professionals and writers.

But what constitutes happiness?

Is it merely an ability to function without a frown, doing one’s bit according to our socio-cultural rules and conventions without coming apart at the seams? If
so then the whole notion is a rather trivial one – and perhaps a little unhappiness is sometimes necessary.

The World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the leading cause of disability by 2020. There isn’t much doubt that sustained and severe clinical depression will need treatment through antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and/or cognitive behavioural therapy. Yet the distinction
between this and unhappiness is crucial, but blurred.

A “depressed” friend of mine after being prescribed antidepressants found herself emotionless. No depression but no joy either. Reality was separated from her. She looked at the world through a plate glass window that stopped her from connecting emotionally with everyone and everything. She stopped taking the tablets before she got to the divorce courts.

Unhappiness is an indicator that something is wrong and change is necessary. For instance, getting out of a dysfunctional relationship or a soul-destroying job. But then if you have Prozac at hand there’s really no need. The status quo is maintained and everything ticks along as normal. You can even smile for the camera at the Christmas do.

The language of the professionals is the common currency for describing our dark nights. However the metaphorical language of poets and storytellers often reaches much further into the real experience of the journey. And this is no romanticised notion. Just check out the “terrible sonnets” of Gerard Manley Hopkins for a master lesson in despair.

It is people who enter dark nights of the soul who are often the sanest. Without shade there is no light. And no creativity. Hemingway celebrated life by getting close
to death. And in order to be actualised it is necessary to reach down into the mental maw.

We’ve all wished to get lost in wild woods and struggle up through distant mountain passes to see what lies beyond. And for all of that you have to bleed a little.

Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.