Our national conversation about depression for the last twenty years has been on hold, largely reduced to a narrow dialogue about the promise and peril of antidepressants: “To Prozac, or not to Prozac?” Peter Kramer’s Listening to Prozac raised expectations that antidepressants would soon make depression obsolete. As this proved not to be the case, there was the predictable backlash. In Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic, antidepressants (and other psychotropic medications) are not only ineffective, but the villain, responsible for worsening the epidemic of mental illness. The next movement will be a backlash to the backlash. If we do nothing different, we can conclude with supreme confidence that all the heated talk about drugs will continue to monopolize the stage and preclude a real conversation about mood and mood disorders.
The continued ascendance of the conventional disease model of depression is part of the problem. The conventional approach tends to view the legions of the depressed and the formerly depressed as a “broken” people, an ever-afflicted group that will likely need repeated assistance over the life course because of their theorized defects. The biological defect model may have been created with good intentions, but it is both belittling and inaccurate. Depression like any mood state has a biology but it is simply not a disease in the same sense that Parkinson’s Disease is. To try to maintain that depression is a brain disease is to cut off a more interesting conversation at the knees.
Happily there are exceptions to this trend. And Dan Lukasik is one of him. There are people who are hunger for more, and who reject the corrosive, age-old stigma attached to depression and depressed people, and who are fighting for a more honest and more balanced discussion of the topic. There are people who agree that it is high time for our society to revise its stance toward the millions who have battled depression.
I am a depression researcher and former depression sufferer who has looked at the poor state of the national dialogue and has been moved to try and change it. I am using social media, particularly Facebook, to restart our national conversation about depression. We desperately need this not only for adults. We also desperately need it for my daughter, Sophie, and for the rest of her generation, the teens who will soon be young adults. Our youth will face depression in high schools and on college campuses in epidemic proportions that will overwhelm them, their parents, and all counseling resources.
One major obstacle to a more affirmative national conversation is that depression has lacked a unifying public symbol that could bring it out of the dark like Livestrong© bracelets did for cancer or the rainbow flag did for LGBT. When most people think of depression, their first associations are to unfortunate images, such as a dark cloud, the color black, or a noose. One reason that depression stigma lives is that depression has a serious bumper sticker problem.
But this is essentially an issue of failed marketing and messaging. It is very hard to talk about depression when it is always on societies’ terms. Depressed and formerly depressed people are ever on the defensive. To change the terms of the debate, and spark more productive conversation. I have developed a unifying symbol to function in a depression anti-stigma campaign. These are glow-in-the-dark wristbands that are printed with the phrase COME OUT OF THE DARK.
A few weeks back, I was using my Facebook page to probe for interest in these wristbands and I made an offer that I would give away a glow-in-the dark wristband to anyone who would be willing to send me a picture of themselves wearing it. I bought 200 bands from China and planned to give them away from time to time to readers who were interested. Initial response was rather tepid and I started to think it would be complete flop. Well, last Thursday, after I had given away a few dozen, for reasons that I do still do not completely understand, the wristbands went viral on the internet, and I was flooded with requests from all over the world. It’s hard to get an exact count but it’s definitely in the thousands.
I received requests from parents for their depressed children. From people who lost loved ones to suicide. From teachers for their classrooms. From therapists for their patients. From counselors for their support groups. And from many individuals who have been touched personally by depression, both those who have conquered depression and those who were still struggling with.
I think that part of the viral appeal of the wristband campaign is the slogan, which has several possible meanings
• Let’s end society’s ignorance about depression.
• Let’s support depressed people so they get well and stay well.
• Let’s create an environment where people can speak freely about depression and no one feels compelled to conceal their pain.
And part of the appeal is that total strangers are giving you something for free that will make you feel more comfortable living in your own skin.
In any case, this has been a stunning development and my life has been turned a bit upside since Thursday since this all happened. I have a full-time job as a researcher at the University of South Florida and I have been thrust into the beginnings of a social movement. I’ve bought another 2,700 wristbands from China. I’ve enlisted friends, family, students, and total strangers in an effort to respond to the messages and prepare a mailing. I’ve asked for donations. We’ve made a plan of action and my goal is to send out these 2,700 wristbands bands by October 1st. This will end the first phase of the campaign. There will be more to come, but I will need to take a break and develop a plan for the second phase.
People who have received the wristbands are starting to return pictures. If you look at this gallery of the first wave of people who have come out of the dark, I think you can more easily understand why this campaign has taken on a life of its own. It’s both a social media campaign and a word-of-mouth campaign – both of which inevitably will shift the conversation about depression on more favorable terms.
The massive response to the Come-Out-of-The-Dark campaign tells me that change is in the wind. People are tired of hiding, tired of hedging. They are ready to reclaim their identities as fully human.
The stakes are high. Conservatively, 13 million US adults are currently in an episode of depression; more than twice that number have had depression in the past. When we add in caregivers, millions more are indirectly affected by the quality and the quantity of our national dialogue about depression.
But we have the momentum. At this rate I give the stigma of depression about another six months to live.
Jonathan Rottenberg is a leading researcher in the area of emotion and psychopathology, where he has focused on major depression. He recently edited Emotion and Psychopathology: Bridging Affective and Clinical Science, published by the American Psychological Association. Since receiving his PhD degree from Stanford University, he has been at the University of South Florida, where he is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Mood and Emotion Laboratory. His work has been generously funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health and he has authored over 35 scientific publications, including many in the top journals in psychology and psychiatry. His work has received national and international media coverage, reported in outlets such as Science News, Scientific American, The New York Times. He is author of the forthcoming book, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic.