“Why are you depressed?” has always struck me as such a useless question. 

I remember once I got irrationally angry at a perfectly well-meaning friend who asked why I was depressed…and I wasn’t even exactly sure why I got so angry. 

I wasn’t exactly sure why I was so depressed, either. 

I think the reason the question, “Why are you depressed?”, strikes me as so absurd is that we very often don’t know “why” we’re depressed…and it’s very often not even a straightforward answer. 

Depression is almost always what we call multidetermined— that is, there’s a lot that goes into it. 

Most people who experience depression have a biological disposition toward it, that involves their nervous system (specifically the production and functioning of neurotransmitters, the chemicals your brain uses to talk to itself) and their endocrine system (specifically the production of hormones that regulates— or upends— our mood and physical alertness and energy). 

Most people who experience depression also tend to have it in their family history— meaning that not only is their biochemistry probably keyed toward depression, but they probably grew up with depressive behavior and attitudes modeled and reinforced. 

And all of that is on the table BEFORE we even get to what most people think they’re asking about when they ask, “Why are you depressed?” 

It seems to be the case that most people, when they ask “why are you depressed?”, are looking for the external reason— the thing that happened outside of you, that “made” you depressed. 

It’s definitely true that external factors can contribute to depression. 

When we don’t have emotional or physical energy to spare, the presence of life stressors will absolutely drag us down and make things worse. 

But I think it’s also true that our culture overestimates the causal impact of external factors in depression. 

We get TOO invested in this idea that things outside of us “make” us depressed— when what actually happens is, external factors INTERACT with what’s already going on with us to produce the emotional and physical state we call “depressed.” 

Add to all THAT, the fact that depression is also commonly associated with conditions such as ADHD or PTSD— or, more specifically, the life difficulties experienced by people who have ADHD and PTSD. 

All of that is before we approach the fact that depression is a normal part of the grieving process…and the grieving process usually lasts much longer than many people think it “should,” given that we’re often supposedly functional and back to our everyday lives before we’re really substantively “over” a loss. 

All of which is to say: how on earth can all that mess be summed up in a cogent response to the question, even well-meaning, “Why are you depressed?” 

I think people ask “why are you depressed?”, because they want to help. 

They want to make suggestions. They want to assist you in getting over or past whatever is “making” you depressed. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m very GLAD there are people who care about us enough to even ask what’s going on with us. 

But we need to be careful to avoid simplistic thinking when it comes to depression. 

It’s usually not ONE THING that can be adjusted or fixed in order to snap us out of it. 

Recovering from depression is a process, much like recovering from addiction:  we manage what we’re experiencing every day, we make small shifts in our thinking and our lifestyle, we slowly evolve different ways of thinking and behaving that support consistently feeling different. 

And even then: it’s not all under our control. 

Brain and body chemistry can be influenced by what we think and what we do, but it’s a notoriously, maddeningly imprecise project. 

Yeah. It can be a slog. 

The good news is, recovery from depression is possible. It does happen, and we’re learning more and more about HOW it happens. 

Recovery from depression is a project worth engaging and persisting in. 

But don’t get sucked into the premise that you’ll discover one “why,” and then proceed to knock it out. 

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One thought on ““Why are you depressed?” Shut up, that’s why.

  1. Best article on Depression that I have read. Its a daily battle for many people. Another quote – which is also so irritating is ” what have you got to be depressed about”? Its as if the depressed person should feel ashamed. Yes its a complex subject – no doubt. The sad thing is that not every Therapist has the insight that Doc has.


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