Chin: Between Sadness and Depression

In the context of recent mental health conversations, some forms of sadness can be productive.

by Clara Chin | 1/26/18 1:15am

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness any given year. Sadness permeates our lives in varying degrees and ways, whether a fleeting melancholy due to heartbreak or a long period of numbness from sudden loss, the moodiness that comes with temperate changes or clinical depression that should be treated.

Recent debate among scientists has emerged concerning the over-diagnosis of mental illness in the 2017 release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), thought of by many as the “bible of psychiatry.” Regardless of whether they are accurate, diagnoses of depression have increased since scientists began systematically studying it a few decades ago. At the same time, there has also been an increase in direct portrayals of mental health issues in popular media, in turn spurring an outcry over the potential romanticizing of such issues. An extreme example is the Netflix show “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which has been called out for desensitizing people to suicide, depicting suicide as no more than a revenge fantasy and even causing an increase in teenagers reporting depressive tendencies or committing suicide.

In light of the increase of depression diagnoses, it is right to be concerned over depression’s portrayal in media. Nevertheless, it is also important to realize that movies and television are an important medium for catharsis and for coping with everyday sadness. Art necessarily depicts negative emotion as a reflection of the reality of life. While romanticizing depression in the media may negatively affect impressionable teenagers, it is also important to recognize that portrayal of mild sadness and even of depression opens up important conversations about mental health.

Two recent examples of more productive depictions of mental health issues include Netflix’s show “The End of the F***king World” and the much talked about film “Call Me by Your Name,” based on the book by the same name by André Aciman. “The End of the F***king World” seems problematic from the outset. The main character James, a self-described psychopath, goes on a road trip with an emotionally detached girl, Alyssa, with the intention of killing her as she tries to fall in love with him. However, while the first episode treats psychopathy in a relatively cavalier way and seems to endorse serious crimes, further episodes describe how the characters’ troubled paths may have contributed to their current ways of being. Alyssa and James’ ultimate inability to escape the legal and emotional consequences of their actions prevents us from condoning their crimes and instead highlights the importance of talking about and diagnosing mental health issues. This contrasts with “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which also minimizes the seriousness of suicide and allows the main character to escape facing her emotional history and the consequences of her actions.

“Call Me by Your Name,” which deals with the sadness of everyday life, depicts less extreme negative emotion. The film depicts a passionate but short-lived summer romance between two characters, Elio and Oliver. The film’s conclusion is simple — it depicts Elio crying over the end of his relationship with Oliver while the song “Visions of Gideon” by Sufjan Stevens plays. In doing so, “Call Me by Your Name” embraces and acknowledges that sadness is a part of life. The film has been called a “beautiful tragedy” and a film that “breaks you in a good way,” paradoxical phrases that capture the capability of negative emotion to be transformed into something positive.

Sadness is an affect that tends to be gendered, but its impact is universal and should be acknowledged. Young artist Audrey Wollen labeled a phenomenon she calls “Sad Girl Theory,” which she summarizes as the idea that “girls’ sadness isn’t quiet, weak, shameful, or dumb … [but] active, autonomous, and articulate.” She cites women ranging from classic literary figure Virginia Woolf to modern pop singer Lana Del Rey as “sad girls.” Her theory focuses on sadness in the context of feminism and activism, but the fact that she draws from both old and contemporary artistic depictions of sadness highlights its universality. Of course, celebrating sadness can go too far — there is a difference between acknowledging sadness on social media, for instance, and simply evoking tears just for the sake of looking sad and beautiful.

That brings us to the question of how one should mediate the difference between sadness and depression. Depression is a term that is claimed by psychiatry and psychotherapy; sadness is one that is depicted, but not defined, in the arts. Sadness and depression overlap and can be difficult to distinguish, especially since these two terms exist in two different fields. And there is a gray area between sadness and depression. A 2008 study concluded that antidepressants were not necessarily more effective than placebos for mild forms of depression illustrates. It is therefore important to be aware of the role of sadness in mental health and its potential for good. The lack of romanticizing in “The End of the F***king World,” the celebration of sadness in “Call Me By Your Name” and the intervention in gendered stereotypes of Wollen’s art demonstrate that sadness can in fact be positive.