Do You Want to Get Better?

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

Depression is a mental illness that affects millions of people worldwide and significantly interferes with daily functioning. It is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest, and can affect how one feels, thinks, and behaves. One can even start to feel that life is not worth living. Fortunately, we have many interventions that can greatly improve the lives of depressed individuals, ranging from psychotherapy to medication. 

You may be the loved one of someone suffering from depression, and you might have broached the topic of seeking therapy, only to be rebuffed. This may have surprised you. Doesn’t everyone want to get better? Why would someone wallow in their depression for years on end when there are clear paths to recovery? In this article, we will attempt to offer some insight into this vexing question.

We first need to understand, what is the role of depression? That question probably puzzles you. Isn’t depression an illness? Why should we be searching for the purpose of depression? The answer is that mental illness is very often a natural and healthy reaction that is incorrectly applied. A classic example of this phenomenon is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The underpinning of the disorder is avoidance of danger. OCD is when the brain associates something not dangerous as being dangerous. Avoidance of danger is a healthy reaction, but it is very unhealthy if there is no real danger. 

Similarly, depression is often the misapplication of a healthy reaction. That reaction is the avoidance of painful feelings and emotions. When someone feels unworthy, sad, or emotionally hurt, there are two choices. One choice is to sit with the emotions and process them, and the other one is to avoid them. When one disengages from society and avoids the world, one can avoid facing and addressing these troubling thoughts and feelings.

The healthy form of depression is when it lasts for a very short time. Something happens in your life that is extremely hurtful or distressing, and you are just not ready to deal with it. You might disengage from the world for a day or two until you are ready to face life once again. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and it is a perfectly legitimate reaction. However, if that method is adopted as the coping strategy for the long term, then you are faced with the illness of depression and all of the suffering that comes along with it. 

This may explain why some people who suffer from depression are not willing to seek help. The reason is because they are afraid. Depression served as their defense mechanism against whatever distressing thoughts and feelings that they are trying to avoid. Suggesting that they seek help is in essence suggesting that they leave themselves vulnerable to those elements that they are so afraid of. This is obviously self-defeating and counter-productive. But since this is mostly taking place in the subconscious, logical arguments are not so effective.

We are instructed by our Sages to not judge someone until you are in their place. It can be extremely difficult to understand why people suffer from depression and why it can be very hard for them to pull themselves out of it. One of the ways you can be helpful is by accepting them for who they are, not judging them, and giving them the space that they need to heal at their own pace. Pushing too hard can make it even more difficult for them. The more you feel compassion for them, the easier it will be for them to feel the inner strength to start the journey to recovery.

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