How Humanism Helps With Depression–Except When It Doesn’t

What’s it like being a humanist with depression?

I’m going to preface this right off the bat by saying: I am not a doctor. I’m not a therapist. I’m not a mental healthcare professional, or indeed a healthcare professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. I freaking hate it when people give me unsolicited, amateur medical advice about my mental health, so I’m very careful not to do that with other people. If you have depression, your mileage may vary from mine. Take what you need from this and leave the rest. (And if you’re not already doing it, get professional help if you possibly can.)

So, with caveats in order, what’s it like for me to be a humanist with depression?

As regular readers may know, I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression. My form of it is chronic and episodic: I’m not depressed all the time, I’m not even depressed most of the time, but I’ve had episodes of serious depression intermittently throughout my adult life. I had a very bad bout of it starting about a year and a half ago. I’m pulling out of it now, but my mental health is still somewhat fragile, I still have to be extra careful with my self-care routines, and I still have relapses into fairly bad episodes now and then. And I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be a humanist with depression, and how these experiences intertwine.

For the most part, my humanism helps. For one thing, I don’t experience any religious guilt—or religious anger—over my depression. I don’t have any sense that I’m letting down my god, that I’m doing something horrible to him by feeling glum and crappy about this wonderful gift of life he’s given me. I don’t have any sense that my god is letting me down. I don’t think my depression is divine punishment or some sort of obscure lesson, and I’m not racking my brains trying to figure out what I did to deserve this. I accept that my depression is a medical condition, and I have it because of genetics, early environmental influences, and other causes and effects in the physical universe.

I do have plenty of self-torments with my depression, self-perpetuating vicious circles where I make myself feel guilty over the illness and its symptoms. But religious guilt is not among them. What’s more, my humanist acceptance and celebration of sexuality, and my resistance to religious sexual guilt, helped me prioritize sexual function when I was picking medication, and helped me be blunt and unashamed with my doctor about how important this was to me.

So I’m not tormenting myself with religious guilt about my depression. And neither are the people around me. Being an outspoken atheist who’s deeply embedded in godless communities has its advantages. My family and friends are almost all nonbelievers, and the ones who aren’t know better than to load religious guilt trips on me. Plus, nobody in my life is telling me to pray, or to align my chakras, or to seek any other religious “treatment” for my medical condition. Atheists and humanists aren’t always perfect about dealing with depression—we have the standard human failings, as well as a few special ones of our own (I’ll get to those in a moment). But for the most part, we accept that mental illnesses are, well, illnesses, and we deal with them as such.

And a reality-based approach to life has been enormously helpful. Being informed by reason, science, and evidence-based thinking is central to most definitions of humanism, including my own—and it has been essential in pursuing my treatment for depression. The habits of skeptical thinking that help me trust well-documented cause and effect, even when it isn’t intuitively obvious—these help me pursue well-documented treatments and self-care techniques, even when the depression is making it hard to see what good it will do. The habits of skeptical thinking that make me conscious of my cognitive biases—and that keep me aware that my perceptions of reality are not always accurate—these help me recognize that my depressed brain is not the best judge of reality, and they help me adjust my perceptions and actions accordingly. Knowing how to evaluate scientific claims has helped me sort through potential treatments, and has helped me decide on a program that makes sense for me. Even simply accepting my diagnosis was made easier by my general humanist discipline in accepting reality. And accepting the reality that this is a chronic illness, with lifelong ups and downs, makes it easier to ride out the low points.

But because one of my humanist values is honesty, and by honesty I also mean recognizing reality for what it is, I’m also going to acknowledge this: there are times when humanism doesn’t help with my depression. There are even times—infrequent, but they happen—when it makes it harder to handle.

It’s true that I don’t have religious guilt about my depression. But I sometimes have humanist guilt about it. Central to my humanist philosophy is the idea that I only have one short life—so I want to live it richly, savor it deeply, and imbue it with meaning and purpose as much as I possibly can. So when I’m experiencing a depressive episode, one of my nastier self-perpetuating feedback loops has to do with what a loser I am, wasting the precious hours of my precious life by lying around feeling sorry for myself. (See my earlier column titled “Humanist Performance Anxiety.”) Even when I’m feeling healthy, I can feel gripped with existential despair, the feeling that if I’m not imbuing every moment of my life with intense meaning, it’s a senseless waste. When I’m having a bad depressive episode this gets dialed up to eleven. And it feeds back on itself; the more overcome I am with humanist guilt about wasting my life, the more depressed I get … and the more depressed I get, the harder it is to richly experience anything.

What’s more, while humanists don’t respond to other people’s depression with religious crap, we have our own cultural quirks—and some of these have a lousy effect on how we deal with mental illness. A lot of nonbelievers tend to think that because we’ve gotten the right answer to one very important question (“is there any evidence for the existence of gods?”), we’re therefore smarter than everyone else and right about every other question. We tend to think that because we’re generally better informed about science than the general population, we’re in a position to educate everyone we encounter about all the science things we have even a passing familiarity with. And when we do this, it seriously screws with how we handle other people’s illness and health—including mental illness and mental health.

I have been handed some unbelievably arrogant, clueless, insensitive crap from nonbelievers about my depression. I’ve gotten an earful of advice—and badgering too—about how my treatment program is obviously wrong and what an idiot I am for thinking that my healthcare providers, closest companions, and I might understand my illness better than a random stranger on the Internet. (For the record: badgering, patronization, and belittling are not good ways to approach people with depression.) And I’m far from alone in this. Humanists also tend to be familiar with scientific language, which makes our arrogant and clueless amateur medical advice seem that much more persuasive—thus making it that much more dangerous.

And finally, humanism doesn’t always help with depression because sometimes nothing helps. Depression is a tough nut to crack. Treatment isn’t simple: for me, and for many people, it involves medication, therapy, help from family and friends, and a whole arsenal of self-care techniques, including exercise, socializing, meditation, spending time outside, eating well, getting the exact right amount of rest and sleep (not too little but not too much), doing the exact right amount of work (enough to feel engaged and productive without getting exhausted), and more—often when we least feel like it. It basically involves throwing every mental healthcare technique against the wall, and hoping that one or more of them sticks.

What’s more, one of the lousiest things about depression is what a vicious circle it is. Some of its ugliest symptoms include the loss of motivation to do the things that alleviate it, not feeling like you deserve care and treatment (which makes treatment harder to pursue), pessimism about whether treatment can be effective (ditto), and the inability to even recognize the illness for what it is. Depression is treatable, but it can be hard to treat. It’s not a philosophical failing. It’s an illness. And a humanist philosophy isn’t going to treat it any more than it could treat diabetes or cancer.

Humanism can’t treat depression. But it’s helping me pursue treatment. It isn’t perfect, and it’s sometimes problematic—but it helps more than it hurts. And for that, I’m grateful.