Over the past few years, the conversation around mental health has become much more wide reaching and publicly acceptable. Yet, there are still a lot of common misconceptions that need to be dispelled. The latest term to make the headlines has been ‘smiling depression’, which follows the age-old principle of don’t take everything at face value (literally) because they might just be smiling through it.
With over 300 million people across the world battling with some form of depression, it’s a term that you’re likely to hear more of, but what exactly is it and how can you identify it?
The ‘grin and bear it’ mentality
It’s a term that most of us have not only heard of, but been told to follow. Yet, experts are now calling into question the idea of smiling through your problems when it comes to underlying mental health concerns. While ‘smiling depression’ is not a medically recognised term, it is similar to atypical depression, whereby your mood can be lifted by positive events, you see an increased weight gain or you find yourself sleeping more.
However, Dr Audrey Tang, psychologist and the author of A Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness cautions the use of term: “It is essential that we see ‘smiling depression’ as a strategy rather than a diagnosis in itself – the diagnosis is “depression”, and a method of coping can be to “smile” or say ‘I’m fine’ in order to remain strong,” says Dr Audrey Tang says. “Looked at in this way, it will be more commonly seen in people who believe they have to – for whatever reason – ‘keep going’.”
The social media effect
For a lot of people, Facebook and Instagram provide the opportunity to showcase an edited (or filtered) part of life to their followers and are then rewarded with ‘likes’. The flipside is that others could potentially feel inadequate in comparison and forget that there is also the unfiltered side of your life that they’re not seeing.
Excessive use of social media and rising rates of depression have been linked for years. However, late last year a study by the University of Pennsylvania confirmed the negative impact that platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram have on our mental health. The study compared how people felt after a typical social media activity with a daily limit of ten minutes per platform over the course of three weeks. The findings?
“Here’s the bottom line,” psychologist and study lead, Melissa G. Hunt told Science Daily. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
Another study by the University College London found that teenage girls were more prone to anxiety and depression than boys after using social media. Experts are still cautious about recommending a getting rid of social media accounts entirely and instead support limiting the time spent on these platforms. Last year, the NHS opened its first addiction clinic dedicated entirely to digital addiction.
The modern man
When the Prodigy’s Keith Flint took his own life earlier this month despite being seemingly upbeat in the pub hours earlier, the shocking statistics surrounding male suicides were thrown into the limelight. While figures are still much lower than what they were 30 years ago, in the UK men are still three times as likely to take their own life than women. And, suicide is more likely to be the reason a British man dies before the age of 50. It’s depressing thought.
Some experts are pinpointing societal pressures as the reason behind higher male suicide rates. Research commissioned by the Samaritans explored the idea of how the role of men in society has changed over the past century. There is a pressure to balance the historical notions of masculinity with the need to have a successful career, be the perfect partner, cook for the family and put your kids to bed. The study concluded: ‘the impact of these processes has not been uniform across society; they pose challenges in particular to the group of men currently in mid-life, and these challenges are exacerbated when men occupy low socio-economic positions.’
The possible remedies
There is no quick fix. Depression of any kind is a complex process and is personal to each individual, however the first step is always identifying it. “If you are feeling depressed, try to avoid using smiling to cope,” says Dr Tang. “It is important to acknowledge your feelings and accept that you are not ‘strange’ or ‘a burden’ or ‘just being silly’. Depression is a very real and very horrible illness – and it is not your fault if you have it.”
Seek professional help:“Once you seek help, there will be other techniques that will be given to you by professionals – depending on who you see and the approach to psychology that they take,” says Dr Tang. “For example, “thought stopping” or the act of jolting out of a negative cycle of thinking by merely saying ‘stop’ to break the habit, which can sometimes be enough to distract your mind or focus it on something else.” Dr Tang also used Gestalt therapy as another example, which helps you to recognise triggers that can lead to a depressive episode and help you to manage them.
Structure your day: The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends creating a monthly calendar and sticking to a routine where possible, including when you go to bed and when you wake up. WHO also cautions on getting enough sleep and avoiding too much.
Take time out: A study done by Rutgers University in the US, found that those who exercised or meditated twice a week experienced a drop of almost 40% in their depression levels after only eight weeks.
If you’d like to find out more or are concerned about someone, here are some helpful links: