Changing the Conversation About Depression
Like many people, I value my commuting time to work in the morning: It’s a chance to relax and clear my head before the rush of meetings, conference calls, and emails of the day ahead. And like millions of others, during that time my car is usually filled with the sounds of Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic from ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike in the Morning.
While Mike & Mike is of course mostly known for light-hearted sports banter, as any regular listener can attest, part of what makes the show outstanding is that when conversations do turn serious, both hosts are able to speak clearly, passionately, and insightfully about important topics. Such was the case last week when they arrived on the subject of Ronda Rousey.
For those who don’t know Ronda Rousey, she is a mixed martial arts fighter who started her career with twelve wins against zero losses, with most of those victories coming in spectacular, overwhelming fashion. By last year, she was widely considered the world’s most dominant female athlete, and among its most famous. Then, in November, she lost.
As we now know, the loss sent Rousey into a tailspin. As she told Ellen DeGeneres during an interview last week, in the days afterwards, she even entertained thoughts of suicide. A horrifying symptom of depression in its own right, this knowledge is made even worse by her family’s known history with the illness.
Immediately, reactions poured in from across the sports world. While most responses were positive and encouraging, many suggested that she simply needed to learn how to take losses in stride, or that she was just feeling highly emotional after a devastating defeat. As Mike Greenberg made clear, if Ronda Rousey is suffering from depression, the story isn’t that simple.
Considering nearly 15 million Americans suffer from depression, this disease is still terribly misunderstood. Depression is not just a lingering sense of sadness you can’t quite kick. Depression is a clinical disorder – born by a complex mix of hereditary and environmental factors – that affects our brain at a chemical level and afflicts people with unique and horrible webs of symptoms: some can’t eat, some can’t stop eating; some can’t sleep, some struggle to get out of bed; some can’t find pleasure; others can’t focus, retain information, remember details, or accomplish basic tasks; a tragic number entertain – and too often act – on even darker thoughts. This disease is a thief. It robs people of joy, productivity, potential, and liveliness. And as a society, we refuse to tackle it head on.
Because so many of us – consciously or subconsciously – treat depression as a sign of weakness or immaturity, millions of people live in the shadows, neglecting treatment of their disease. In fact, fewer than half of Americans who are diagnosed with major depressive disorder in a given year receive treatment. This is especially unfortunate given that when people do get help, most are able to significantly reduce symptoms.
I have spent much of my career working in the mental health area of pharmaceuticals and we have seen some incredible scientific advancements during that time. But as long as more than half of people living with depression are feeling too angry, embarrassed, or ashamed to confront their disease, scientific advancements aren’t going to solve this by themselves. To help minds, we need to change minds. To do this, we need more public figures like Mike Greenberg to step up and describe depression for what it is: a medical condition like any other.
I hope that as people sped along to work that morning, at least a few began to think differently about this devastating and complicated disease, and that they’ll speak differently of depression going forward. Changing the conversation is the only way we’re going to win this battle.