Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Don't Tell Me I'm Not Resilient - A Response to an Infuriating Article

A friend recently brought to my attention an article about resilience, and the fact that it indicated that people were either depressed OR resilient, but seemingly impossible of being both. I'm always interested in mental health themed information, and aggravated about how the media butchers it, and so I read. I was immediately disturbed by the fact that it was an article on PBS/WHYY. This is channel/station that I've generally respected and enjoyed for being educational, and actually educational in the downfall of so many other channels that sensationalized and celebritized (is that a word?) "education" ... Ahem, I'm looking at you, A&E, and basically all publicly broadcasted News programs. But I digress. Back to the article itself.

Before I continue, let me say that the this article begins with a story about a local woman who survived a violent childhood and being kidnapped in Somalia as an adult. The fact that she is still alive, let alone sharing her story, is a most certainly a testament to her resilience, and anything I say here is in no way to take away from the horrific experiences she's had and her ability to pull through them. She is heroic and courageous and in fact, it's not she who says anything that upsets me in the least. She actually discusses the dark place she was in, and pulling out of it. She herself at no point that I see here uses the word resilient, nor furthers the stigma about depression. It is, rather, everyone else that seems to have a hand in this article that does that.

Basically, the theme of the article is that when going through something difficult/terrible/terrifying, you can either become depressed or resilient. Like it's choice. Like if you just had an attitude adjustment, you could be resilient instead of depressed. Statements like this one, describing a test in which people are looking at a computer and matching emotions to pictures of faces they're show, fill the article.

“The idea is, someone who is depressed is biased towards picking up negative emotion, and against positive emotion,” Elliot says. “We expect to see the opposite in people who are resilient.”

Depressed people pick negative. Resilient people pick the opposite. The fact that they use these two as counter-examples is enough in and of itself to state their point - depressed people and resilient people are not one in the same. They continue this type of talk, describing how people can go through terrible things and yet they're not depressed, while others are. Let me clue them in on some brain science: that's because depression is about chemistry and genetics, a**holes. It's not a choice, it's not an attitude, it's not smiling and looking on the sunny side vs "woah is me". 

I have one thing (in addition to the expletive above) to say to both the researchers that stated these "facts" and the people that chose to commit it to paper... er, screen... as if it were true: you clearly have no idea what depression actually is. So, let me tell you about depression and resilience. 

Every single day we go through the exact same world as you do - except with a genetic, medical, physical condition that makes it tough, sometimes excruciating, to get out of bed, get dressed, shower, eat, go to work, interact, feel any emotion, think straight, focus, and do everything else that's required. Some days everything we're doing feels meaningless, life feels pointless, and we feel worthless. BUT WE DO IT ANYWAYS. Every day.  And not just because we have to, but because we are pushing through, hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute or second by second. Just as Ms. Lindhout describes she did during her ordeal. She doesn't say "I jumped for joy each day; life seemed wonderful." She says: 

"And I never knew if I could make it through the day. So I would break it down and ask myself, ‘Can I get through the next minute?’ ”

In other words, she did exactly as I've described above. Exactly what people with depression, and other mental health conditions, do all the time. Break it down to the smallest possible piece you can and get through, because that's all you can do. Yet she's resilient, and we're not? Bullshit. 


  1. To me the scariest thing about the article was the assumption that everything related to human beings is reducible to scientific explanation. The field of "epigenetics" feels eerily like the road to Gattaca. Of course, the target audience was the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, so I guess it shouldn't be a major surprise.

    1. Exactly, characterizing humans in general based on a few tests is very scary - every single person is affected by things in different ways, and expresses it in different ways as well. Not to mention the fact that someone could test drastically different from day to day. It reminds me when of when you get on the help desk line for a computer issue and they tell you "do xyz" and you do it and they say "now this should happen" and you say "it didn't" and they reply "but it should". And if it doesn't work exactly as it technically should they're stymied.

  2. The the portion of the article discussing Elliot's studies was really the only section of the article I saw that pitted depression against resiliency. I really objected to the way in which she used the word depression. I agree with you, Maya, that often someone with depression is more resilient because they have faced the difficulty of depression and still managed to carry on with their life. Sir Michael Rudder said "“Resilience is not necessarily doing wonderfully. That’s competence,Resilience is doing better in relation to bad experiences than other people with similar bad experiences.” I felt that this was a much better description of resilience and, in my view, supports the idea that someone could be depressed and resilient.

    1. I agree with that, and like that quote much better. The idea of pitting depression against resilience is exactly what I didn't like. Some people with depression may show more resilience, while others may show less.... just like some people without depression may show more, while others without depression may show less.