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  • Teens and other young individuals overuse the term depression: they say they’re “depressed,” when they’re anything but perfectly happy.
  • This is a problem, as it blurs the line between being experiencing normal emotions and being clinically depressed.
  • The answer to this problem is to help young people understand that life is not black in white—that a less than perfect day doesn’t equal depression.
  • To determine whether one is actually depressed, they should match their symptoms to the diagnostic criteria of depression and talk to a mental health professional about their concerns.
  • Furthermore, to combat negative feelings, they should reframe their thoughts and change their language to make for a more positive outlook on life.

*Dejaye Botkin, MA, LPC, NCC, is a psychotherapist at Extinguishing Fear Counseling and Coaching*

Is the word “depression” that 20-somethings refer to really depression? Teens and 20-somethings are using depression as a regular term to describe “distress.” What used to be known as a clinical term for thoughts of suicide, self-harm, disruption in routine, and impaired sleeping and eating, has now become the label for anyone who is feeling less than happy. I have noticed that the majority of clients who come into my practice under the age of 25 practice black and white thinking: “I am either happy or depressed, therefore, if I am not happy, I must be depressed!”

Boredom, FOMO, and Rejection

Unfortunately, due to being overstimulated in our society, young people are starting to equate boredom to depression. The idea of “happiness” is so abstract that we have to rely on social media to define the word. When viewers see their friends on social media smiling, or enjoying parties, they think that if they are not feeling the exact same way, they must be depressed.

Ironically, feeling left out or experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out), creates feelings of rejection that are often misunderstood as depression. Feeling fear, rejection, vulnerability, abandonment, shame, and grief are all really commonly experienced feelings. However, it is more socially acceptable to use the word “depression,” than it is to say, “I am feeling unhappy today because I was rejected by my peer group.” Unfortunately for mental health providers, explaining this concept is hard to do. Clients want quick fixes. They will often say, “my friend said her antidepressant is really helping her so I need that too.” This type of thinking is so limited. It assumes that 1) depression is the correct diagnosis and 2) that all depression is treated equally.

Correcting Black and White Thinking

What do we do? The answer is to help young people recognize that life is not black and white. That it is okay to live in the “grey area” and just have an average day that is neither happy nor depressed. Clinical depression is real but it is a chemical imbalance that impacts the neurotransmitters in your brain. It is not a “state of being,” that can come and go similar to moods. As long as the word depression is being overused in an incorrect manner, it will remain the common method to explain emotional discomfort.

In a clinical setting we have to explain that one’s presenting problem is most likely not the one that needs to be treated right away. If we can acknowledge the situation that led to the self-described depression, we have a much better chance of offering our clients relief.

Is It Depression or Something Else?

If you are a 20-something that was bullied most of your childhood and now you are feeling depressed, the likely target need is to address the residual trauma from being bullied. If you are a 20-something that grew up in a dysfunctional family and you are now feeling depressed, the likely target need is to address how you functioned in a constant state of fight or flight in your home. If you are a person experiencing all of the clinical symptoms of depression and a genetic history of depression, then in fact, maybe it is depression. In that case, a psychopharmacological approach may be warranted.

In overreported and mislabeled “depression,” once the underlying causes of distress is identified, coupled with the acceptance that life is not black and white, clients experience relief. Despite our desire to live in a constant state of bliss, no one can sustain a permanent state of happiness because life is a rollercoaster. When one is free of burdens and expectations from work, family, finances, illness, etc., they are more open to sustained joy and therefore feeling overall happier. Vacation, hobbies, and celebrations offer opportunities to temporarily escape from life’s pressures. Often clients who use the word “depression” to describe their distress, are really just saying they need more opportunities to experience joy and freedom from overwhelming responsibilities.

Reframe Your Thoughts to Challenge Your “Depression”

When a person states, “vacation is over and now I am depressed,” immediately their happy mood changes to disappointment. If the same person calls their disappointment depression, it is then misunderstood as a clinical mental health problem. The key would be to reframe the thought to, “I am sad that vacation is over but I look forward to planning the next one.” The mood shifts from feeling depressed to feeling optimistic and hopeful.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is used to help clients reframe “depressing thoughts” to better tolerated thoughts. For example, change language from, “nobody likes me and I am worthless,” to “I am struggling to find friends but I have to put myself out there.” Immediately, the feeling of the speaker changes from helpless to hopeful.

Understanding Depression as a Mental Health Crisis

Overall, we need to stop overusing the word depression and feel more comfortable with admitting to feeling shamed about our experiences with rejection, abandonment, grief, etc. In addition, we need to accept that life is not black and white and it is okay to have good and bad days. In fact, bad days are what makes good days so much better. Finally, depression is real, but if the diagnosis is overused, then clients who are really suffering will be overshadowed by a generation that uses the label to describe a mood or state of mind versus a real mental health crisis.

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