Thursday, January 5, 2017

Getting the Details Right: Depression

Good to Know: Depression


Misunderstandings about mental illness can lead to inaccurate writing and contribute to widespread misconceptions about those with a real affliction. While characters who suffer from depression are plentiful in fiction, a faulty portrayal of the disorder can weaken a writer’s work. Let’s debunk a few of the most common myths to help you get your facts straight.

Depression affects everyone the same way: by making them sad. A depressed person will feel miserable and drained right up to the point that he commits suicide.

Depression usually manifests itself as extreme exhaustion and numbness rather than sadness. Experience of it is varied by personality and social factors. It’s very rarely unremitting—usually, people experience individual episodes. Depressed people can be happy and funny, and thankfully, many more recover than kill themselves.

Depression compromises a person’s intelligence, and generally renders her less capable of dealing with life on her own.

There’s no shortage of renowned geniuses who lived with depression—including literary ones such as Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens. And while depression can be debilitating at times, recovery is both possible and probable.

Institutions are terrifying, dark places. Inmates are all held against their will and are humiliated and mistreated by staff. Once committed, patients are unlikely to ever be released.

These days, most mental facilities could practically be hotels (notwithstanding intentional quirks such as the absence of protruding features—not even a door lock or light switch). Admissions are often voluntary and short-term. Generally speaking, the staff is kind and patients are hopeful and determined: Hospitals are places of recovery. Misrepresenting these places in a story could well be the thing that stops someone from seeking help—and unfortunately so, as the risk of suicide for those who are not treated is 15 percent, versus only 1 percent for those who receive treatment.

I can’t write depression; it’s too complicated. I wouldn’t even know where to start researching 
or how to check my facts.

The American Psychiatric Association website ( is an excellent resource for medical fact-checking. The magazine I founded, HeadSpace, contains fiction, memoir and poetry relating to mental health for those interested in reading realistic accounts. And any number of personal blogs and memoirs documenting living with mental illness are widely available.

Naomi Elster is a medical scientist and a writer with bylines in Crannóg Magazine, New Internationalist, The Guardian and others. She co-founded the mental health–themed magazine HeadSpace in 2013, and has taught creative writing in a psychiatric hospital. This article originally appeared in the January 2016 Writer’s Digest.

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