Saturday, December 31, 2011

We're not all the same

Twice in the past two days I've been hit with, “I know people with depression who can...” do thing I can't do.* Both times as part of a line of reasoning that seemed to be very much that I'm overstating my problems and can too do those things other people with depression did. In defense of the two entirely unrelated people who hit me with this, they were in fact talking about untreated depression so it's not like they were holding me to the standards of people on successful treatment. At least, I think the second person was.**

The trouble is, they're assuming depression is the same for everyone. It's not. Worse than that, they're assuming people with depression can be treated as a single monolithic whole. You know one of us you know us all.

Consider the United States of America. About 17% of the people in the US have depression. That's more than one in six. It's clearly a minority, since most people don't, but it's a fracking big minority. For comparison, that's more people than any racial minority in the US.

I think it's traditional to do something like, “If we got all of the X people together to form their own state,” when trying to get the idea of a large number of people across, so let's go there. If the depressed people in the US all got together to form the state of Depresstopia, (Motto: The least uplifting place on earth.) it would be the largest state in the US by a wide margin.

How wide?

Well, take California, the most populous state in the US, then add to it Illinois, the fifth most populous, then add New Mexico (36th) and we're still not there yet. But we're pretty close. It's low by about the size of Wyoming, which I was initially willing to write off as a rounding error.

Caveats from two directions. First that was quick and dirty math and thus might be off. Second is that those depressed people would have to come from somewhere, so it's not enough to say that Depresstopia would be about a an Illinois, New Mexico and Wyoming larger than California, because California, Illinois, New Mexico, and Wyomig would all be made smaller by the exodus.

My point here is that, whatever the cliché you choose to use, there are a lot of us.

I want to make this point because the tempting thing is to respond by saying, “You know there are different types of depression,” but then people would just check which type someone had and assume that they knew them then. My point is larger than that. There are different types of people.

Try to get a mere million people together who are so similar that by knowing one or two of them you know the capabilities of all of them. Not as many people as there are depressed people, a much smaller figure. A mere million. (That's somewhere between a Rhode Island and a Montana, for those keeping track.)

I doubt you could do it. Even if depression were exactly the same for everyone, which it emphatically is not***, that wouldn't mean everyone who has it would react in the same way because they're different people.

Saying, “I know a depressed person who can [whatever],” as part of the argument, “therefore you can too,” is like saying, “Well I know a Mainer who can spelunk, get in the damn cave,” “I know a human being who can play a glass armonica, I've set up the instrument for you, you're on stage in five minutes”or, “I know a mammal who can fly. You're a mammal. Fly. Right now. I insist.”

I don't know exactly what the appropriate response is. I'm not a bat. I don't have wings. Just because some other mammal can do it doesn't mean I can.

Yes, other people are not as hindered as I am. It's great for them. I am not those people.


And for the record, not all autistic people can count up toothpicks in an instant. Most can't.


* Actually, the second time it was more like “I knew a person with depression who could...”

** The individual referred to did eventually get treatment, but I think the statement was in reference to the time in the persons life.

*** This applies within the subcategories as well, it should be noted.


  1. Some mental problems do lead to similarities of personality - most serial killers act in remarkably similar ways, for example, and most people with depression will have some traits in common.

    But never all of them. Apart from anything else, this is biology, which means no hard dividing edges anywhere ever.

  2. Definitely there will be similarities. If there weren't some similarities then depression as a diagnosis wouldn't exist.

    The problem is when people act as if traits in common mean that what is true for one person with depression is true for all. That simply isn't true.

    Especially when you've got multiple things working together I have * Asperger's in addition to depression as well as at least one other possibly relevant thing that I'm not currently talking about in public.

    But, even if you get together everyone who has all three, and are thus dealing with a much smaller group that has significantly more traits in common with me than the entire group of everyone who has depression, there's going to be severe variations in the abilities found in the group. Just because one of us can do something doesn't mean all of us can.

    It's sort of like, no two movies are precisely alike, but they've all got some traits in common otherwise they wouldn't be movies, they'd be books, or train tracks or hummingbirds.

    If it were as easy to put people with depression into a single box as some people imply, then the first medication I was put on would have worked because some people with depression were able to return to normal when they took it. That's what it was given to me in the first place.

    Of course, you've pretty much already indicated that you know all of this.


    *probably, but the diagnosis is unofficial in spite of being given by two different trained people who did not consult and thus were judging the matter independently


    The inability to edit comments is annoying. Because I screwed this up the first time I've deleted my first attempt and am now posting a, hopefully, non-screwed-up version.

    I don't even know if other people can do that much.

    Does anyone have experience with blogger? Is there something I can do to have editable comments? I know that Ana Mardoll's site is powered by blogger but uses disqus.