The positive sides of depression

Most young adults we interviewed described ways depression enriches their lives despite – or in some cases because of — the suffering it causes. Many people said depression made them more aware, empathic, kind or humble. Others linked their creativity or strength to experiences with depression: as Kate put it, “there’s a lot of duality in the fact that I’m fragile but also very, very strong.” Jason summarized a general feeling of gratitude, saying “I feel like through the experience I value my life more. I value my loved ones more.” Ben pointed out that many positive role models, like the actor Jim Carrey, bring “remarkable attributes” to the world and illustrate that depression “doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means you’re struggling.”

Maya thinks of depression and anxiety as only parts of her emotional spectrum, and describes many ways they enrich her life.
Interview Transcript

One of the things that I wanted to share in this interview that I was thinking about a lot was the fact that I think so often we talk about depression and anxiety as though it’s only a negative. And I’m really a big fan of the biopsychosocial models of depression and anxiety that show that one, it’s a spectrum. You know, you’re not either depressed or not depressed. But you know, we all have these different ranges. But I’m a person when it comes to like, the analogy of a piano, I play all the keys. I have very high highs and I have very low lows. But at the same time, I think that despite the fact that it has made my life a lot more difficult, I think it also affords me a great deal of empathy, a great deal of sensitivity, a great deal of understanding that, you know, someone who hasn’t struggled with something like this might not have. And I think when it comes to doing interpersonal work or educational work like I do now, having such a broad range of experiences is actually really helpful. And when it comes to sort of creative pursuits, and I mean, I think there is a reason why there is this stereotype of you know the, the tortured artist. I think that if you come into this world and you are more sensitive, you know, you see more or you hear more you’re a noticer whether or not it’s, you know, the dew on some rose petals or just like the immense suffering of the people in front of you. I think that being a noticer is, it’s a strength but also it’s a liability and I think it’s important to focus on both sides of that, and not only see it as a cost that needs to be managed.

DEP Maya
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

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Depression as a curse and a blessing

A number of people explicitly linked together multiple sides of their emotional lives, noting that “you don’t get all the lessons and like, the rewards without going through the crappy part of it.” Jeremy said that even though he suffers depression during the winter, “everything’s about balance” and the turning of the seasons is essential for maintaining that balance.

Brendan acknowledged, with humor, that depression does indeed have a silver lining — but this is more of a “consolation prize” on “a very huge, very dark cloud… [that] anybody would prefer to not have to endure… in the first place.” Jackson is grateful for the strength he gained through his depression experiences but is now ready “to live a life that maybe won’t be filled with mostly depression at all.”

For Shayne, depression is both a blessing and a curse.
Interview Transcript

…It’s like a blessing and a curse, you know. And it makes my life really shitty, but it makes me really kind and giving and caring and have a lot of friends and a like really interesting person. I’m super creative, you know, like. I do, like, I’m really smart and that’s also because of the illness, so you know, it sucks a lot of the time, but I wouldn’t be as, you know, musically talented or artistically inclined I feel if I didn’t have it, you know. I wouldn’t be as sensitive a person or as kind of a person, that much I know for sure.

DEP Shayne
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Shayne lives in a house with two roommates and three cats. She works in research, exercises regularly, and does art. She is White.

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Empathy and awareness

Many people said that learning to empathize — that is, to understand and share another person’s emotions or experience — was a hard-won but valuable gift associated with depression. Sophie said in the past it was hard to know what to do when friends were having problems, but depression has made her “more empathic towards people who are going through it as well.” Jeremy says he has learned to put himself “in other people’s shoes.” Several people described becoming less likely to “judge those who have mental illness” because they realize that “no one is exempt” from depression and everyone is deserving of compassion. For Joey, helping other people with depression has become “one of the side projects of my life.”

Kate says depression has made her understanding toward others because she knows what it's like to be fragile.
Interview Transcript

It gives me a strength and an understanding towards others because I know what it feels like to be fragile. I know what it feels like to be on the verge of killing yourself or on the verge of harming yourself. So I’m more capable of being sympathetic. And it helps me deal with my friends who have depression. It helps me understand them better and they seem to be drawn to my energy and positivity because that’s something that a lot of people with depression don’t have. And that’s the reason I have it, that’s the reason I project it, is because I understand that so many people just don’t have it. So it’s helped me realize where others might need help and where I need help and how that can fit together.

DEP Kate
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 12

Background: Kate is an actress who works in an art gallery. She lives in an apartment with a roommate and a cat. She is white.

Click here to view Kate's profile page
Frankie still doesn't feel she is the most empathetic person because depression makes her distant -- but it has made her a better listener.
Interview Transcript

I think that I am more understanding, I’m so understanding of other people and their feelings. I’m not the most empathetic person in the sense that I, I don’t get super close with other people, but when they are having an issue I am there 100% to listen and to provide any sort of advice I can. So that, that’s a strength of mine that I think has come out of depression.

DEP Frankie
Profile Info
Age at interview: 24
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Frankie works fulltime in customer service and lives with her husband. She takes antidepressants is not in therapy. Ethnic background is Caucasian.

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Struggles with depression led to increased self-awareness for a number of people we interviewed — and many of them said being more attuned to their own emotions also made them more attuned to others. Jackson said his “early intense experiences” have given him “a lot of self-awareness… like I really understand my expression of emotions [and]… sometimes where they’re originating from even.” Another participant described how having low self-esteem has made her sensitive to supporting other people, taking care “not to make anyone else feel that way.” Shayne observes that she is “exceedingly emotionally sensitive,” which means she can be easy to mistreat but also “super kind… understanding, and empathetic.”

Emotional awareness is the biggest thing Jeremy says he's gained through his depression journey.
Interview Transcript

I’m more aware, that’s the biggest thing. The whole emotional awareness, I was so unaware of my emotions, like, a few years ago. And that’s the other thing that’s surprised me too, it’s like, man, if I’m getting to this level now like where am I gonna be later? But, this whole journey has been, it’s just the whole awareness that’s changed. And once you’re aware of something it’s a lot different, like, if let’s say, try to think of like an example like, if you not, if you haven’t been aware of something, it’s the whole what you don’t know can’t hurt type and like, and ignorance is bliss, that’s what I’m thinking, like, if you don’t know or you’re not aware, you just don’t know, you just, you don’t think about it. So awareness has been the biggest thing. And it makes you like, you’re more on, ah, I’m feeling like this because of this, I’m feeling like this because of this.

DEP Jeremy
Profile Info
Age at interview: 22
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Jeremy is a psychology student and lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is mixed, Black and White.

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Devin says being neglected in his early life made him able to feel other people's emotions, and now he uses that ability to be helpful.
Interview Transcript

I always had this ability I guess to be able to tell people’s emotions even when they weren’t showing anything on their face. And I guess that might be because I was so neglected of emotion from my mother for those 13 years or whatever. That that actually helped me because I was actually able to help other people out and that’s what I’ve always cared most about is helping others. You know, even if that means sacrificing my own help that is needed. I’ve always just wanted to help other people and from what I figured out was that if I could be around other people who had these emotions needed help I would gain them so much so that it’s still continued now that like when I’m in crowds I can feel everyone else’s emotions just by looking at them. And I seem to gain those emotions, I think there’s a term for it. It’s called like empath or something like that.

DEP Devin
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 16

Background: Devin lives with his girlfriend and other roommates in a city he recently moved to from another part of the country. He has a part-time job in a store. He is White.

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Maya ties her sensitivity to her capacity to appreciate, notice, and witness.
Interview Transcript

But I was told that I was just too sensitive to everything and in many ways I am, but in just the right environment I feel as though I have so much more to offer because I notice so much more and I appreciate so much more and I witness so much more than the average person, it’s just as though I don’t have filters, you know what I mean. It’s like other people wearing sunglasses and so they can stand in the bright light for a long time, but I don’t, I don’t have those blinders so I have to take it all in. And I think that can give someone tremendous strength and so, it’s just about getting those conditions just right for those people.

DEP Maya
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

Click here to view Maya's profile page

A few people described a satisfying synergy between their efforts to be less isolated with their own depression and their growing capacity to empathize with others. As Maya put it, “I’ve many times been on the side of the table where you know, I’m holding someone else’s pain and I’m here to compassionately listen and be very attuned, but other times I need someone to hold that space for me, that safety, that nurturing and that compassion.”

For Nadina, helping others also means feeling less alone.
Interview Transcript

I think part of the reason why I like to help people out is because I’ve been there and I just, I know how bad they feel. I may not know exactly how bad they feel but I’ve, I’ve definitely felt similar, similar things and you know it upsets me to see them like that so I try really hard to help them out because I, it’s almost kind of like not comforting but good to know that somebody else feels something that you’ve felt before so you don’t feel as alone.

DEP Nadina
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Nadina lives with her parents in a suburb near a small city. She completed college and works as a freelance illustrator. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Nadina's profile page

Creativity

Many people we interviewed are artists: musicians, designers, actors, writers, visual artists. Most of them said depression and creativity are linked, one way or another. In Kate’s words, “depression is one of the main drives that I have in being creative. I can’t not be creative.” Brendan said depression is a big theme in his music — especially the concept that “this is temporary and something better’s coming from it.” Joey described music he created while depressed as having a “build up of something… a dynamic structure… towards the fight.” By contrast, he felt the music he made while on medication was “middle of the road… just going through the motion.”

Sam says depression allows him to engage with art on an emotional level.
Interview Transcript

For a long period of time, in my first couple years of school in which I was extremely depressed, it did make doing theater work, which is the kind of art that I most want to create with my life, made it somewhat unfeasable. Theater does demand a consistent and rigorous commitment to attending rehearsals regularly, to being vulnerable, to the somewhat extreme emotional demands that working on a story can take you to. It does necessitate open and frequent communication with many, many other people, but in a way it has also given me this unique perspective that I have that noone else does with which I can tap into certain stories and certain characters and certain moods and tease them out of other actors, out of myself if I’m acting or other actors if I’m directing, out of designers and out of anyone who works on a show. It gives me this ability to engage with the art I want to make on an emotional level that I don’t think I would be able to access if I weren’t drawing from this pain in my past.

DEP Sam
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.

Click here to view Sam's profile page

See also ‘Depression and healing’, ‘Having a purpose in life’, ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘How depression feels’, and ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’.

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