November 2, 2020 | by Joseph E. Reid
I recently had a difficult debate with a member of an online group I manage. I will refer to him as Bill. Bill has been dealing with depression for about 2 years or so. Some pretty dark stuff. One day Bill “decided to not be depressed anymore” and began sharing his journey with other members of the group as well as on his personal Facebook page. He mentioned how this was a decision he made, that he was done with depression, and that this was a matter of will power and God’s strength. I blocked his membership from the group for 7 days and this was why: It was my opinion that he was behaving in a rather manic fashion. He expressed openly that he was fast-tracking the process of quitting his depression medications and totally relying on his will-power and God’s strength to see him through. Within 15 days of his decision to not be depressed anymore, he began two businesses and declared himself “depression-free.”
Without a doubt, Bill seemed to be doing better. He was so much happier and was doing things to aid his mental health: taking walks, eating healthy food, spending time with friends, as well as being an encouragement to others. The reason I blocked him was that I perceived his situation to be consistent with a manic episode. If he is bipolar, which I do not know, this may be true. My action was a precaution. His cavalier attitude and complete disregard for the opinions of others (other leaders from the group and I had shared our concerns with him prior to taking action) had me concerned. At the same time, I did not want to, in any way, interfere with his current positive experience. I also did not want him to lead other struggling people astray. It was my belief that his actions were dangerous in that other people with a mental illness might see his quick successes and follow suit. This didn't seem practical, nor did it seem reasonable or safe. At the same time, man… I hoped Bill did truly have his depression beat.
So, can we change our mood? Can we make the decision to be depression free? This is such an emotionally loaded question for me. I think we can make decisions about our day; decisions that have a great impact on how we feel. So, in a sense, I believe you can “choose” healthy living, making a good mood more likely. But the problem, and the question I raise, is the mood that is changed “independent” of the choice? (Real quick, let me define mood: when I refer to mood in this article, I am referring to the way someone feels) It is more likely, or is it, that we will feel better if we make better choices; at least I think it is reasonable to say it is more likely. However, it does not demonstrate certainty. It demonstrates probability which is a long way off from certainty.
What does it mean to change our mood? How would a person go about choosing a good mood?
The only way we can manage how we feel, and by manage I mean do anything to try to control our circumstances by intentionally acting, is by changing what we think and do. There are many things people do to change how they feel. Some healthy, some not. Personally, I go to the gym, drink water more often than other drinks, take my anti-depressants, read a lot, and journal. These are some of the more obvious things people do to manage. I also maintain healthy relationships with friends and family, spend time in quiet reflection, and visit places that are beautiful and visually stimulating. I take the time in quiet places to find beauty in each moment. I also have a tendency to drink sweet tea, eat chocolate, spend in excess, and stay on my devices excessively. These are some examples of my less-than-healthier decisions.
Then what is the danger in saying we can “change our mood?” Why am I so concerned?
Here’s my concern: Sometimes when people refer to a bad or depressed mood I wonder if what they are experiencing is a mental illness? Is the mood “just a bad day.” Maybe you woke up “on the wrong side of the bed.” I for one, do not believe that if someone has a bad mood or feels sad that they are necessarily experiencing a mental illness. The danger is if people with a genuine illness begin to do this; avoiding proper treatment and care. Indeed, it is quite likely, unfortunate, and very common that people with an undiagnosed mental illness misdiagnose themselves. Jesus actually gives a good example of how dangerous this can be as recorded by Matthew: “If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14) People with bipolar disorder experience periods of highs and lows quite regularly. My experience with manic behavior, although I have not been diagnosed with bipolar, is that when I am feeling great, I can’t imagine why or how I have ever felt any different. The same is true when I am at a low point.
If depression is indeed an illness, then I can no more decide not to have it than I can choose to not have a broken arm. I can certainly take steps to avoid a broken arm, but once it is broke, it is broken until it is healed. The danger in neglecting the broken arm is that it can lead to major discomfort, lack of mobility (caused by improper healing), infection, and possibly death if severe enough. Choosing to ignore the broken arm is dangerous. There are still options. You can ignore treating the broken arm and change your lifestyle so that the changes to mobility and discomfort are less of an issue, but then wouldn’t it be ultimately easier, if you are willing to go through all that trouble, to just get a doctor to reset the bone and treat it?
If all we choose to do for mental illness is change our mood by changing our actions, then we avoid the underlining issue of a broken mind and are forced to hobble along in life, battling with mental illness by avoiding certain circumstances that can aggravate your illness. One term that comes to mind while I write about this is the word “trigger.” It is a common word in the mental health community. It is a word that is used to identify things, activities, or people who may aggravate or intensify the symptoms of a person’s mental illness.
Here is my summary and my feelings on the issue. Moods and feelings are vicariously under our control. But this issue differs between people who are in a sour mood and those with a legitimate mental illness. Even so, all a person can do who may just be having a bad day is chooseto think a certain way, pretend to be happy, and/or surround themselves with happy stimuli. This may or may not have an effect on their mood. There is no guarantee. Why? That is a question for the professionals. A person with a true mental illness, on the other hand, diagnosed or not, has a host of other obstacles to overcome. How I feel isn’t just a matter of external stimulus. It is the result of a broken mind. I know that the term broken may seem misplaced or even inappropriate, but when you consider it in terms of a physical illness, (which isn’t a mental illness really just a very complicated physical illness) it’s not all that wrong. We are ok referring to a broken body: broken bones, broken skin in the form of a scar; we try to fix our eyes with the aid of laser surgery or help by wearing glasses or contacts. We accept that these things about ourselves are broken and can be repaired, and so we try. Headache? Oh, we can do something about that, here’s a Tylenol. With true mental illness there are possibly a host of issues happening in the brain that scientists are still scrambling to discover. But, to be sure, there is a chemical or electrical issue that is causing mental illness. Of course, there those who argue whether or not depression is actually an illness. This is a topic for another time. It is however the opinion of the entire medical profession that it is. If we neglect to treat it as an illness, then we are only making matters worse. If we neglect to treat it as an illness while taking a public stance to treat it with good decisions, then I would suggest we are committing a morale and medical atrocity.
Founder | Broken People