As someone with an invisible illness (sickle cell anemia), I know first-hand that there are a few hurtful things people can say. One of these is the notion that you choose to let your condition affect you. Sickle cell is much like depression and other mental health conditions, in the sense that when people look at you, they can't tell that you're suffering; hence it being called an invisible illness. And this often creates a dynamic of people instantly not believing you.
Sickle cell and many other lifelong chronic illnesses often lead to depression and other mental health conditions. So it's with this personal understanding that I want to dispel the notion that suffering from depression (or any condition) is a choice.
If a person makes such a statement towards a friend or family member going through depression, it means that either they haven't taken the time to see things from the other person's perspective or they don't want to.
When someone displays physical pain or emotional distress, a neural circuit gets activated that initiates mutual distress in someone else present. And so, although empathy is an ability that every person is capable of having, there are people who aim to avoid associating with negative feelings; perhaps because they can't handle them or they want to protect themselves from these feelings.
While it's understandable that a person may not want to feel uncomfortable around someone else who is suffering, It can be extremely hurtful to the person suffering by stating that they can choose not to let their condition affect them. For those of us who are truly suffering, we can't simply switch our suffering off, especially if it's had a long-term impact on our lives.
I find that many people fail to understand the passive effects that suffering from an invisible illness can have. Our suffering extends beyond just our common symptoms. Living with an invisible illness means that we've had to face many uncomfortable social situations, such as people questioning the validity of our condition and possibly even failed relationships due to lack of understanding. These are all experiences that leave a mark and cannot be undone.
If you're one of those people who believes that letting our conditions affect us is a choice then I can tell you that your belief will only hurt others who are really going through something. Saying that we choose to let it affect us won't be productive in any way. Instead, you should try to be supportive to the person in question. Here are a few ways you can offer support:
Listen to them: Listen to what the person is going through and ask questions when you don't understand something. Sometimes people just need to talk about their issues without worrying about judgment. If you become that person for them, you will become a valued friend or family member.
Research the condition: Your opinion of the condition being a choice likely stems from a lack of knowledge about it. Instead of assuming, do some research about the condition to get the full scope of how it impacts a person. Learning more will again make you a more valued friend.
Be there for the person in the long-term: Whatever your opinion of the condition, if the person is your friend or family you should make an effort to check up on them and make sure they're okay. Avoiding the person will only do more harm than good for your bond with them.
Be patient: Depression or any invisible illness is something that takes some time to treat. Encourage the person to see a professional if they aren't already and be patient and understanding along the way. Ask if there's anything you can do to assist them.
Regardless of any stigma, depression is real. People do suffer from it and no honest person simply chooses to let it affect them. The good news is that there will always be someone out there who will listen to our troubles and provide the right guidance.
Psympatico offers several treatments for depression and we treat people every day within the UK. If you require our support then feel free to contact us.
- Written by Gary S