The Elusive Pursuit of Happiness: Why You Can’t Just Tell People To “Look on the Bright Side”
“Look on the bright side,” “be positive”—this is what not to say to someone suffering from depression
I took a photo of the aftermath; I needed a reminder of what hitting rock bottom looked like: I was constantly restless. I lost 4 pounds in the span of 3 days because I refused to eat. I stopped drinking coffee because the rapid heart palpitations mimicked my anxiety attacks. I had to sleep beside my sister because I became afraid of the dark (that’s when the “bad thoughts” would come). I would wake up in the middle of the night, usually during witching hour, with an accelerated heart rate and shortness of breath. I, literally, had to be pulled out of bed just to take a bath and have some semblance of productivity.
This was a series of the worst depressive episodes I’ve had triggered by a quarter-life crisis––which, let’s face it, lasted past my 25th birthday––and the passing of a family member. This is what an episode feels like: as if you were robbed of happiness and a veil of darkness has covered you. It accompanied me everywhere I went. It felt so familiar; it almost seemed like a friend.
I remember this day clearly: Following a tactless remark by variety television show host, Joey De Leon, saying people who suffer from depression make it up. He said, “Yung depression, gawa-gawa lang ng mag tao iyan. Gawa nila sa sarili nila.” I entered our office bathroom that day and heard two mothers speaking about the dire matter, sharing their personal experiences of it with their children. I beamed. I was not alone and I felt a sense of validation. Somebody else was going through it, too.
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To Those Who Cannot Will Happiness into Existence…
The struggle is real and it isn’t made up. World Health Organization describes depression as “…persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that you normally enjoy, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities, for at least two weeks. In addition, people with depression normally have several of the following: a loss of energy, a change in appetite, sleeping more or less, anxiety, reduced concentration, indecisiveness, restlessness, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide.”
From their recent studies, 800,000 people die due to suicide every year. 3,000 die daily. It is the second leading source of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. In 2017, WHO led a year-long global campaign called “Depression: Let’s Talk” geared towards destigmatizing the illness, providing more information, and getting people to seek (professional) help because, yes, we need to talk about it.
Last January, The Department of Health issued an urgent statement following the alarming death of a Filipino musician due to suicide. They reported: “In the Philippines, 3.3 million Filipinos suffer from depressive discovers with suicide rates in 2.5 males and 1.7 females per 100,000. We need to start talking about depression to end the stigma surrounding mental health because when left unattended, it can lead to suicide.”
In June of 2018, the Philippine Mental Health Law or Republic Act No. 11036 was signed to integrate and champion mental health in the general healthcare system—services and facilities included. It was found in the WHO Mental Health Atlas (2017) study on the Philippines that the government’s total expenditure on mental health is only 0.22%; most people who have mental health disorders––myself included––pay entirely out of their own pockets for services and medicines.
“Are You Sure You’re Just Not Sad?”
I’ve heard this before from others, well-meaning as they were, who downplayed something as grave as depression because they didn’t understand how serious it is. It is not just a fleeting “feeling.” We need to verbalize and address the matter because it’s the first step to acknowledging the gravity of this disease. Labeling someone as “dramatic,” “emotional,” or “O.A.” undermines their reality and their truth.
On International Happiness Day this year, we celebrate the theme “Happier Together” by letting empathy reign. You can’t just tell people to “look on the bright side,” “be positive,” or whatever euphemism to silence somebody else’s struggle—may masabi lang. If you’re in the dark when it comes to understanding depression, do your research and have the conversation—no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Communicate your commitment to help somebody suffering from it. Call them when they’re going through an episode. Go with them to a doctor’s appointment. Pick up their medications. Accompany them to the gym for much needed physical activity. Help them carry the weight they can’t. Most of the time, simply listening and being present is enough.
Bear with me. A recent Netflix addition, which gripped my heart is Patch Adams. This stars comedic prodigy, Robin Williams, who, in 2014, devastated the world in his passing due to suicide. Based on a real story, he played Hunter “Patch” Adams, a brilliant medical doctor, clown and social activist who changed the landscape of America’s healthcare system through his unique approach to medicine by incorporating laughter, joy and creativity.
Self-committed inside a psychiatric ward, he had his “breakthrough moment” when he began connecting with other people. He found his answer in the most unlikely place. This led him to attend medical school so he can treat patients, make them laugh and ultimately improve their quality of life. In 1971, he created the Gesundheit! Institute, a non-profit healthcare organization reframing the concept of a hospital.
I am no Patch Adams but a note to you facing this crippling affliction: Find purpose in your depression. Help people understand you by not withdrawing from your community and isolating yourself—because that’s exactly when you need people the most. I know this to be true. Ask questions. Seek professional help. Talk to people who are experiencing the same thing. Filter what you take in and know your triggers. Set your mind to what you can do today and lay aside the weight of tomorrow.
For those in need of help, the Department of Health has a 24-hour toll-free suicide prevention hotline. You can call (02) 8804 4673; (917) 5584673 or send a SMS to 2919 for Globe and TM subscribers.
These institutions also offer free psychiatric consultations: Philippine General Hospital, Among Rodriguez Memorial Medical Center, National Center for Mental Health, Ateneo Center for Family Ministries, Philippine General Hospital, and UST Graduate School’s Psychotrauma Clinic.
Words Elisa Aquino
Art Alexandra Lara