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Happiness Is A Skill - Issue #35 - A conversation about mental health & identity

Happiness Is A Skill - Issue #35 - A conversation about mental health & identity
By Brooke Siem  • Issue #35 • View online
For this week’s HIAS, I wanted to share the conversation I had in the comments of one of my YouTube videos.
For context, my video focused on the idea of changing the narrative around depression, specifically regarding recovery. My argument is that we need to shift our view of depression as something temporary, rather than a lifelong diagnosis. Because if we can’t even conceptualize the idea of healing from it, we will never have a shot at getting better.
The woman who responded, J.A., works for the Black Box Warning Initiative that fights to end drug advertising and require mandatory drug side effect reporting from physicians.
I’ve edited the conversation for clarity and brevity. Special thanks to J.A. for her insight and openness.
From J.A:
People are terrified of not having the labels. When you threaten their labels, you’re going after the legitimacy of their emotional states. So how do we change this conversation? Because even my own adult child, about your age, calls it “her” anxiety, “her” whatever, and at the end of the day, it feels like “her whatever” is something that has almost as many benefits as drawbacks. It’s become social currency.
I grew up in an era where “depression” wasn’t even spoken of, and “anxiety?” WTF is that? We were “stressed out.” That’s it. I lived through the “bootstrap pull” mentality, and eventually, I went to talk therapy as a junior in high school and I “recovered” from those feelings of depression because I had a bunch of good reasons, too.
But I’m not here to say “I had it worse,” I’m here to say that we’ve become so complacent, instead of feeling trapped by the labels, people feel liberated by them. So, how do we do this–help people reframe the entire socially accepted medical construct?
As for me, the work I’m doing (a non-profit, the Black Box Warning Initiative) only scratches the surface–meaning we’re pointing out that medications are something that people are given without all of the information, and also, it makes no sense. “Okay, so you want to take a medication that could make what you’re attempting to treat, exponentially worse?”
But my real passion is to challenge the concept of “validity” v. “reliability” re: psychiatric illnesses, because while it’s reliable that someone feels depressed after a divorce, there’s no validity to them getting diagnosed with “clinical depression” unless they seek it out–seek out the self-reported diagnosis that, when they suddenly find them unhelpful, they can’t scrub from their medical records no matter how much legal bleach they use.
My response:
Fear is always the driver because if you “threaten” people’s identity, or their view of themselves, or their life’s work, they feel invalidated. Whenever I get this kind of remark thrown at me, I try and remember that “there are those who can see, those who can see when shown, and those who will never see.” To change the conversation, we have to focus on the first two groups of people. Those in the latter group simply aren’t ready yet.
I was there, not ready, for 15 years. I constantly argued that depression wasn’t a choice and pushed away resources that came my way. I liked seeing my suffering validated by researchers and journalists because it absolved me of my personal responsibility. Day to day living was enough work. The idea of doing more, especially when it was “part of who I am” (and therefore, unchangeable), seemed asinine.
Besides, I didn’t want a future. So why would I put the effort in for a better one?
That’s why my message is focused on the idea of hope and recovery. How can people start to shift their view if they’ve never been shown another option?
I find this topic so fascinating because it is both an age-old issue and one that is very much a product of the modern world. On the one hand, we (along with all sentient beings) are evolutionarily programmed to avoid physical and psychological pain. Pain means danger (or the threat of danger), so we want to avoid it and end it at all costs. On the other hand, the modern world has eradicated countless sources of pain. Mattresses, thermostats, morphine, penicillin—all of it exists to keep us in some variation of pain-free comfort.
So while I would never say that the idea of progressive pain management (and I’m using that term loosely) is bad, the constant need to be “comfortable” is both stripping us of our ability to self-manage pain AND illuminating the fact that psychologic pain will outperform modern technology, time and time again. To me, this is the last great frontier. With all of our physical needs met with the click of a computer mouse, all that underlying psychological sludge is free to roam around and cause devastating chaos.
The mental chaos is a message. It is a sign, in the most basic form, that there is something wrong with your life. Not something wrong with you. People confuse that, over and over again, because they don’t want to face the consequences of actually making significant changes. Or, and I see this all the time, people actually benefit from being sick, so they continue to engage in the sickly behaviors because they’re getting something out of it. I.E: not dealing with anxiety because it “fuels” overachievement; not dealing with depression out of fear of losing their creative muse.
I see this as a puzzle, and right now all the pieces are floating around but people aren’t taking the time to put it all together. It’s changing, slowly. But of course, the ones who get the most press are the ones who yell the loudest and typically fall into the “those who will never see” category. All we can do is hold up the light in the meantime, and lead by example.

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Brooke Siem

After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. HAPPINESS IS A SKILL a newsletter for people who are ready to dig deep and do the self-work required to create a beautiful life. You can learn more about my story at

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