How To Explain Depression To Someone (Helping Others Understand)

How do you explain what depression feels like to someone who’s never had it?

Start with the obvious.

The name “depression” is literal. It depresses a person’s ability to function and feel their full scope of emotions, starting with the positive and working down into the negative.

People who haven’t experienced depression tend to mistake it for sadness, but it’s not.

Sadness can be a symptom of depression, but so can lethargy, apathy, loneliness, low self-esteem, anger, physical pain, and so many more.

Depression seems like a simple word on the surface, but there are many different types and states of depression.

An otherwise healthy person can experience depression because of environmental or social circumstances in their life.

Maybe they experienced the death of a loved one, have a taxing job that is draining them of their mental and emotional energy, or have been unemployed and broke for a long time.

These things might cause that healthy person to become depressed, which can be combated by working through those circumstances or getting help through therapy or medication.

A person may also experience depression as a chronic mental illness, where they may be diagnosed with a recurring disorder that they have to manage over a long period of time.

Sometimes it’s an effect of bad brain chemistry, sometimes it’s the result of other medical issues the person might have ranging from physical illnesses to untreated traumatic experiences.

It’s not unusual for people with chronic physical illnesses to develop depression as a side effect of their physical illness.

But, all of that feels kind of like superficial information you could pull from any generic medical website, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t really explain what depression feels like.

I want to stress that the following description is just one perception. People experience the same mental illnesses in many different ways because symptoms can manifest and look different from person to person.

Some people may feel this is a great description while others may not because it is such an individual thing.

There isn’t one clear way to describe it that every person with depression will say, “Yes, that’s it.”

But here goes…

Take a moment and think back to the last time you had a really bad cold or flu.

How did you feel mentally while you were sick? Were you chipper and upbeat? Were you outgoing and happy? Were you energetic and raring to go?

Probably not.

I know when I get sick I feel lethargic, apathetic, and really just want to go to sleep for a while so maybe I can feel better when I wake up again.

Of course, I can’t avoid the responsibilities of life just because I’m sick…

There’s a birthday party I need to go to! I have to go to work! My family is relying on me to help take care of them! Other people are counting on me to be present and able to fulfill whatever roles that I play in life!

So I go to that birthday party and try to keep to myself so no one else gets sick.

I’m not happy or feeling well, but I keep putting on a smile and trying to joke with people as they are having a good time and I don’t want to bring anyone down because I’m not feeling well.

I try to avoid getting pulled into too many things, but I just feel so exhausted from being sick that I really just want to go back home to my bed, lay down, and sleep this sickness off.

But I can’t do that.

The kids need a ride to their extracurricular activities and the family needs fed.

So, I head to the grocery store, trying to avoid people so I don’t have to pretend to be social or get anyone else sick.

I have to get these groceries, get them home, get the kids rounded up and piled into the car so I can get them to their activity.

I plod along through the store and people wander past, lost in their own lives and oblivious to my sickness.

After all, I don’t really look sick. I’m just exhausted and need to get these things done so I can get in bed and hopefully sleep this off.

But I can’t. I have to take the kids to their extracurricular activity.

I get them there, but I’m just so exhausted.

I sit by myself on the bleachers, again, so I don’t have to fake happiness or pretend to be social because I’m sick.

But my kids aren’t sick. They’re smiling, happy, and having fun.

They shout and wave to me, so I force a smile and I wave back so they feel encouraged and can have their fun!

Because why would I want my sickness to be a burden to the people that love me? That I love?

No, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to put on a smile and get through this. Then I can go home and finally go to sleep.

And we finally drag ourselves home, I get them fed and taken care of, and now, now I can finally get some sleep before work tomorrow.

Maybe I’ll feel better when I wake up.

But I don’t.

I feel exactly the same as I felt yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that. And the day before that. And the week before that. And the month before that. And the year before that.

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I drag myself out of bed, force myself into the shower, get the kids taken care of and off to school, and then I have to go to work.

I’m trying to do my job, but my brain just feels so fuzzy and won’t process things like I know it should.

One symptom of depression that is often overlooked in the discussion of symptoms is that it slows down one’s cognitive thinking abilities; one’s ability to problem solve.

I may be able to do it after some time, but my brain isn’t connecting those thoughts together correctly because I just feel so exhausted and wasted for energy.

But my boss and coworkers don’t really care about that. I’m angry and frustrated because I can’t work at the capacity that I know I’m capable of.

I just have to grin and bear it, get this work done, and get through my work day so I can hopefully go home, get some more sleep, and see if I can finally kick this illness off.

I get off work, head home to take care of the kids after school, and run them to another extracurricular activity, where I once again avoid people, try to cheer the kids on, and encourage their joy and happiness.

I can’t be happy, but at least they can until they start feeling the negatives of life. I hope that’s not any time soon.

I certainly don’t want them getting sick like I am, so maybe if I limit my exposure to them my sickness won’t affect them as much? Maybe.

I really just want to go home and go to sleep for a while. I feel so exhausted. Everything I feel is muted and much smaller than it should be.

Human beings are emotional creatures. Everything in life that we do is fueled in some way by our feelings – a feeling of duty, love, necessity, happiness, accomplishment, pride, ego, sadness, anger, righteousness, radiance, warmth.

But all of those feelings are just a figment of what they should be, smothered and strangled by the exhaustion of the sickness.

Just leave me alone so I can go to sleep for a while. Maybe I’ll feel better when I wake up.

And so I go to sleep again tonight, thinking that maybe tomorrow will be a better day and I won’t feel as sick and exhausted anymore, but I’m just lying to myself now. Decades have passed.

And on top of the exhaustion is the pain from the tragedies of life, losing people I care about as we grow in different directions or people die, jobs get lost, and I face down an uncertain future.

The doctor says that this medication will help my sickness, make me feel less exhausted, and maybe even cure me!

But, that’s what he said for the last seven medications that didn’t work.

But I’ll take it anyway, because what difference does it make if it does or doesn’t work at this point?

Either it works and that feeling of exhaustion and emptiness goes away, or it doesn’t and life carries on as it has.

And throughout that time where your emotions are getting strangled and smothered, the sickness is amplifying other negative actions and thoughts.

Hurt yourself, smoke that, snort that, shoot that, drink that, have sex with them so you can feel a little different, a little something else other than the numbness for a little while.

But even that loses its luster as those things become boring and monotonous since they don’t actually help.

They’re just a brief escape of brilliant positive chemicals with the added side effects often worsening depression, sending me into a negative spiral.

There’s no brightness. And people don’t want to talk to me anymore because the sickness is bumming them out.

They believe the sickness isn’t real, or that it’s just all in the person’s head. People stop caring and having patience after a while.

I don’t blame them. I lost patience with it years ago.

Suicide isn’t an option though. Not when you’ve seen what that does to the people left behind. And have felt what it did when someone I loved and cared about were finally swept under by their sickness, their exhaustion, and they chose to take their life.

Many people who complete suicide don’t do it because they want to die. What they want is an exit from a sickness that seems impossible to escape when you’re drowning in it.

Many people look for the words to accurately explain depression, but how do you really explain nothingness, a void, emptiness?

How do you convey the intensity of that nothingness to someone that’s never experienced it in such a way that they can grasp the full scope and gravity of those words?

I don’t know if that’s entirely possible.

What I do know is that there are many people who have trudged their way through the exhaustion and negativity to find peace and happiness.

For some people it was psychotherapy to deal with the tragedies and traumas they experienced, for others it was medication to correct a chemical imbalance, and for a lot of people it was a combination of those things.

An interesting part of finally experiencing real feelings after a couple decades of depression is learning how to function in the world while actually having feelings about things. It’s a fairly foreign concept when you haven’t felt anything in a long time.

Depression is difficult, but it’s not the end.

You have more strength and power than you may realize, particularly if depression has been eroding that feeling for a long time.

And though it may be difficult to find the right words to express what depression is like in a universal way that anyone can understand and relate to, sharing this article with someone may be the first step to helping them better understand.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.