Losing Friends to Depression: an ambivalent necessity

Mental illness is a community of strangers. Those suffering from major depressive disorders constantly feel alienated in social situations and relationships. Depression makes friendships hard to come by and inevitably strained. It can be hard to maintain a lasting and consistent connection with others when one’s own mind prefers solitude or fears betrayal or loss. Oftentimes the fear of rejection or inadequacy blocks a depressive person to reach out to others who they would like to get to know better. Other times, having recurring patterns of depression and seclusion is too hard to understand or too much of a hassle for neurotypical friends to feel like keeping in touch. Friends then become all the more important for those suffering from mental illness. Depression sets its sufferer alienated from others and having a close ally and confidant can make all the difference. However, just because someone with a mental illness has trouble maintaining friendships due to their changing moods does not mean that they have to hold on to every friend who comes their way. Unfortunately, depressive individuals can easily find themselves within a toxic friendship. Sadly, suffering from major depression and feeling worthless means that one can get too carried away with the attention and not notice the damage the other does to them.

Recently there has been an influx of articles on the importance for self-care. Clearly having close friends is just as important for the maintenance and care for one’s well-being. But having toxic friends who further stigmatize your mental illness cannot be self-care, but instead are a form of self-harm. The pattern of harm when remaining in stigmatizing friendships mirrors those in other forms of abusive relationships. What is too often forgotten is that emotional abuse is just as harmful if not more harmful than physical abuse.

My argument is that friendships that foster emotional abuse must end. When depressed, it is too easy to believe the blame is upon oneself and oneself alone. This is hardly the case.

What is hard is that oftentimes a harmful or toxic friend only means the best intentions towards their friends, but nevertheless repeat the same patterns of abuse. The following are questions to consider if a depression-sufferer is worried that their friends and allies are actually doing them more stigmatizing harm than good:

  1. Are you anxious whenever you make plans with this friend?

Making plans with a good friend should not be the cause of stress. Repeatedly feeling the pang of an oncoming anxiety attack when thinking about spending time with someone betrays that your relationship with them is strained and troubled.

  1. Do you feel like this friend has a hard time listening to you or being careful/aware of you triggers?

A good friend should be responsive. Good intentions mean nothing if one is not paying the proper attention to your concerns.

  1. Does this friend mention how much they have sacrificed for you? Do they ever seem satisfied with what they think they get in return from you?

This sort of rhetoric converts a friendship into an economy of give and take. The insistence upon reminding the other of actions done “out of love” are not actually love, but a transaction. Introducing the concept of debt into a friendship is an immediate cause for concern and emotional blackmail.

  1. Does your friend police your feelings, suggesting that your feelings are “wrong”?

This is a form of gaslighting, turning your mood disorder against you and claiming that you are incapable of having rational reactions to anything. Feelings are never “wrong” and you should never be made to feel inadequate due to your gut reaction to events.

  1. Does your friend treat others with mood disorders with any respect?

Someone with double-standards when it comes to ableism and refers to others’ disabilities as “crazy”, “overdramatic”, or “difficult” cannot be trusted. Someone who makes fun of a mutual friend for having a panic attack is not likely to be empathetic to your own.

Ultimately, depression and other mood disorders demonstrate a need for a higher quality friend. But at no point should someone with a mood disorder feel that they are too discerning when it comes to finding someone to trust. Frankly, expecting high standards from others is a necessity for survival. Disassociating from toxic friendships is hard. There is always the trap of falling straight back into these harmful patterns, but it is much better for yourself to cut ties when possible to those who hurt you, even if they claim they are doing what is best for you. It is not up to the depressive to change their condition; it is up to the ally to better oneself in dealing with one’s friend.

What I am calling for in this piece is for someone in such an emotionally abusive relationship to step up and resist stigma. This may come in many forms: either a direct confrontation, or a passive disassociation ignoring invitations to go out or other messages from the abusive friend. While the former may seem to have more closure and dignity, I think the latter approach can be just as vital. An abusive friend may beg for forgiveness without feeling real remorse or change. I have found that there are many ways that an abuser can talk about forgiveness, and that all of them are wrong; it is only up to the person who is harmed to discuss forgiveness. If you feel that your friend has continually put you down and made you feel worse, there is little to forgive in this person.

For those suffering depression, having a stigmatizing friend is worse than having no close friends at all. It is a hard process to find friends who are actually supportive of fluctuating mood disorders, but it makes all the difference.

So, we are pretending that the attack is motivated by mental illness again

In a moment of social déjà vu, we hear again about a man in a southern movie theater attacking other moviegoers in midst of a rather feminist film’s screening. Unlike two weeks ago in Louisiana, the attack in Tennessee is non-fatal to its victims and the attacker is killed by responding police who confuse his airsoft gun for a real firearm. Police release the attacker’s face and name to the media. And all too immediately, media outlets such as The Tennessean let us know that Vincente Montano was “homeless, and his mother said he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The woman told police Montano has other health issues and a hard time taking care of himself.” Mental and physical illness is immediately disclosed. While The Tennessean report is careful to avoid laying blame on mental health, they do not provide for much in regards to questioning motives.

While the details of this latest attack are new and strange raising questions about Montano’s methods, the real familiarity of this report is this “history of mental illness” narrative. Following our mass shootings in America perpetrated most often by white males, our media focus looks for motives. However instead of investigating the underlying social problems that incite such atrocious acts we hope instead to look to identifying easier, sensationalist motives. We propagate fear of mental illness quite a bit. Instead of racism, mainstream media talked about Roof’s supposed mental illness. Instead of misogyny, we talked about Houser’s mental illness. Stigmatizing mental illness is America’s knee-jerk reaction to men’s violent acts.

Mental illness alone is not a motive for murder or willfully harming others. This cannot be stressed enough. Even when faced with overwhelming contradictory evidence, the “fact” of mental illness crystalizes and takes hold in our cultural imaginations and paranoia. Meanwhile, it is more likely for the mentally ill to suffer violence than to commit violence. However if we were to pretend that the “history of mental illness” narrative were true, does it do us any good as a society? Do the mentally ill benefit from the attention, even if it is negative? Can American society prevent such attacks by being vigilant about mental illness? The answer to each of these is a bitter and resounding no.

If we were to pretend that mental illness alone is the motivating factor in mass violence, these attacks could act as an impetus to finally overhaul and reform mental health care in this country. We’ve heard this one before. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, there were plenty of “what ifs” asked regarding Adam Lanza’s “history of mental illness”, trying to see if there could have been a point of intervention that would have saved lives besides infringing upon the right to bear arms. These questions of intervention bring in problems of privacy and autonomy that ask for an open record of mental health, much more invasive than any attempt on the second amendment could ever be. Yet the attitude of those who pin mass violence upon mental illness use it as a justification to limit the freedoms of the mentally ill. Western civilization, as Michel Foucault suggests, uses the diagnosis of mental illness as a tool for power keeping those who suffer from it at the margins of society, othered and kept at a distance.

Yet, even if we were to put in the effort to diagnose and intervene with “at risk” populations, many of those who are professionally diagnosed with mental illness pose no apparent risk, or at least haven’t acted on it. Philosopher Jennifer Radden identifies that women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses (which alone raises the foiling question, “where are our women mass-shooters?”), while men who suffer often undiagnosed depression are more likely to mask their condition only to lash out in anti-social behavior. I take this to indicate that the problem is mental illness itself, but mental illness’ interaction with our social gender roles. In a society in which men are supposed to be stoic, mental illness ought to be buried more deeply. Taking our problem to be mental illness, we have shifted away into a problem with masculinity itself instead.

Mental illness is a community of strangers. It affects people across all ages, classes, races, and genders. Yet mental illness is only worsened through alienation and separation. If we want to mitigate mental illness and prevent individuals from reaching violent breaking points, then we need to focus on improving other social problems as well. Mental illness has been shown to be significantly worsened among those below the poverty line or racially discriminated.The problem is not mental illness; mental illness and mass-violence instead appear more likely as symptoms of larger problems that the United States would prefer to ignore, only furthering our chances of tragedy.

We may never know truly what Montano’s motives in the Antioch Theater were, but thanks to the reports of his “history of mental illness” we will never shake off the stigmatizing speculation. People are continually dying from mass-violence in this country, and yet all of our speculation on mental illness as its motivation has only further alienated those who suffer from mental illness. Those with mental illness are assumed not to be contributing members of society, but a constant danger. We are not the only nation to have mentally ill citizens, yet the only one to have such large scale violent attacks “without warning”. We need to look further than the easy to stigmatize “history of mental illness” when we investigate mass-violence.