In a 2016 research study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, one participant said that “Unfortunately depression is now so firmly rooted with me that it is an indelible part of my persona. I wouldn’t know how to act without depression”
“Depression is who I am”
That’s the title and/or theme of many subreddit threads as well as a pervasive notion among people with mental illness.
In my own experience, I’ve seen similar threads on Tumblr and have heard peers at school say similar things.
For many people with mental illness, typically depression, incorporating their illness into their sense of self is somewhat common — and understandably so.
Identity politics have been discussed more frequently within recent years, so it’s reasonable for some to consider depression as a form of identity because depression involves a set of experiences that is normative to other people with depression.
But this attitude often harms one’s recovery progress and coping capacity, and is therefore toxic to one’s health.
Why identify with a mental illness?
Unlike some physical illnesses, having a mental illness can affect your thoughts, feelings and personality, making it seem as if mental illness and identity are inextricably intertwined.
As well, individuals who try medications but don’t find the right fit can often feel as if their livelihood or sense of self is blunted by these medications.
And given the stigma that surrounds mental illness, it’s no surprise that individuals want to identify with a social group — since identification with a group tends to be protective for wellbeing by ameliorating the harms of discrimination.
Membership in a well-defined group allows individuals to share their collective triumphs and tribulations.
Individuals may feel as if they’re not alone anymore.
The harms of identifying with a mental illness
While struggle can shape our experiences and, can make us more resilient, it is dangerous to let our struggle become our identity.
In spite of the benefits, identifying with a mental illness in particular, or having an “illness identity” as some researchers call it, can diminish hope and self-esteem, and impact suicide risk — consequences that outweigh its benefits. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2927828/
Unsurprisingly, this self-identification tends to predict lower wellbeing— perhaps because it’s shown to predict conforming to the norms of depressed people, such as self-loathing, self-harm, insecurity, and pessimism among other norms. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032715303670
It’s important to note that individuals who didn’t identify as depressed weren’t influenced by the symptom norms of depressed people.
Symptoms of Depression. Courtesy of Honey Lake Clinic
Identifying with an illness identity can create a perpetual cycle of misery.
Self-loathing can lead to hopelessness, which can push an individual to pursue avoidant strategies to cope with their illness, such as “removing him or herself from anxiety-provoking situations, or using alcohol or drugs to numb unpleasant emotional states,” according to researchers Philip T. Yanos, David Roe and Paul H. Lysaker. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2927828/
What’s more is that identifying with a mental illness can make it seem as if recovery’s out of reach. It’s a dangerous notion to implicitly promote.
To be a part of this social category, you must be depressed; and identity, according to the Rejection Identification Model, is something you can’t just leave — for example, I can never not be Chinese Canadian. So it would seem that mental wellness and this identity are incompatible.
But depression is a real illness that can be treated, even in the most severe cases, thereby allowing one to leave their illness identity. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression-what-you-need-to-know/index.shtml
There are many different treatment options available, such as psychotherapy, anti-depressants and counselling.
Alternative coping strategies
With the rise in conversations about mental health and suicide both on campus and online, most of us are no stranger to the magnitude of mental health issues that plague our demographic. Especially on university campuses.
To do our part, we must keep the conversation going and we must do it right.
T-Shirt Saying “I am Not My Disorder”. Courtesy of Pinterest
We need to shed light on the harms of illness and provide alternative coping strategies, such as group therapy or support groups, for individuals who want to claim an illness identity.
And most importantly, for individuals grappling with a mental illness, we need to recognize that an illness doesn’t define us, no more than cancer or diabetes does.