Depression: The Willpower Delusion

Nancy’s story in Depression: Parents and Children shows how she came to accept joy in what at first she did not want, and tells about her work to help suffering children.

Many of those who suffer depressive episodes help fellow-sufferers.  It is a natural response and we know better than anyone that willpower alone is not a cure.

Mike wrote: I see so many struggling as I do, but support is not available.  We are often left to cope on our own or get support for a very limited period.  Suicide rates are increasing in young men in the UK.  

“Society still doesn’t understand and I often find that people just don’t know how to respond when you are open.  I once stood up in a meeting at work and explained why I was doing reduced hours because I was struggling with my mental health.  Everyone looked very uncomfortable.  

“Afterwards the only responses I got were from members of staff who were suffering from depression.  They turned to me for support because I had been open about it.  

“What happens then is I support them and ignore myself, until it all gets too much and I crumble.  

“It is seen as a weakness, but we are all so strong because we battle through this every day.”  

Mike’s story illustrates how ignorance about mental illness prevents us from helping and even increases suffering, and that imagining depression to be weakness is utterly incorrect.

Mike also shows us the very sad truth that his form of depression is like some physical illnesses–the symptoms can be mitigated but there is no cure.

And we see another very sad truth.  Because he is a exceptionally kind as well as courageous, Mike tries, despite the additional suffering he knows it will cause himself, to help others who cannot get society’s help.

Michael is less unfortunate because he is often in remission.  He  helps fellow-sufferers via an established channel.  He wrote:  I have struggled myself on several occasions.  Now I provide CBT-based therapy through the UK National Health Service to those who suffer anxiety and depression.  

“Once a week I facilitate a workshop to approximately 25 people.  One of the best aspects of this is that the clients can see that depression is very common and does not discriminate.  

“I am keen on public health initiatives that help to ‘normalize’ depression, while acknowledging the debilitating effects that it can have on those who suffer.  In the UK one in every five visits to a doctor is for anxiety or depression.

I replied:  We are trained by society to imagine we can overcome depression with will power. The implication is, if we can’t do that we are weak.  Will power is essential just to keep going but battling depression is exhausting.  It can become impossible to carry on.  

“We must eradicate that delusion.  We don’t expect anyone to overcome diabetes with will power.  We understand for so many other maladies the need for treatment.”

Michael responded:  “If people could ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ they would have done so. Depression is exhausting and it can take massive will power to just get out of bed. This is a characteristic of depression, not evidence of weakness or laziness – though unfortunately those who are depressed are often all too quick to flog themselves with such thoughts.”

Doug added:  More generally, no mental illness of whatever type is amenable to a willpower cure.   It can lie undisturbed under the surface for arbitrarily long periods and then emerge to endanger any or all aspects of one’s life.   I’m a board member of NAMI New Hampshire which lobbies for treatment options, produces training materials, and provides support for family members.   Along with other readers of Martin’s piece, we do not believe in the miraculous self-help model.”

So, fellow-sufferers from depressive episodes, when opportunities arise and you have the strength, please help others recognize that depression is illness, nothing more and nothing less, and that even those with chronic illness can suffer less and be more productive with treatment.

And everyone, perhaps you can help change society in a systematic way as Doug and others do.

We must eliminate the idea that willpower is a cure for illness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.