It’s human nature to assume that everyone sees and experiences things as we do, but this isn’t true. For people suffering from depression, the world can look and feel drastically different.
People with depression report intense feelings of hopelessness, joylessness, profound sadness, and a sense of isolation—even when surrounded by people who love and care about them. Beyond the emotional experience, depression can literally color a person’s world and impact the way they see and experience life.
The “lens of depression” is something I have spoken with many of my patients about. In my work with family members of people who suffer from depression, their frustration and desire for their loved one to “snap out of it,” get out of bed, and “rejoin the world” is often the topic of conversation. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
To help people understand this experience, I developed an activity that involved asking people to look around the room and pick an object to describe in great detail. I then ask them to put on glasses that are either tinted or have a light prescription. When I ask them to describe those same objects once again, they report a different image; though they may remember what an object looked like before, it’s not what they see now.
This exercise aims to build empathy and provide insight into the experience of depression. People who are living with depression cannot simply remove that lens through which they are seeing and experiencing things. I have also done this exercise with patients, to help them make sense of their diagnosis and the need for treatment.
A relevant study was recently published in the EPJ Data Science Journal, reporting findings from an analysis of images posted on Instagram by people diagnosed with depression. The study focused on several factors related to Instagram posts, with greater consideration for the photos over the accompanying message or caption.
The findings are powerful: When compared to photos of individuals who were not experiencing depression, the images posted by those with depression tended to be bluer, grayer, and darker. Additionally, people with depression were more likely to use filters—often to remove color from the photo completely. Photo analysis not only supported a depression diagnosis but was also able to preemptively identify depression among those who were not yet diagnosed at the time of posting.
The impact of this study is far-reaching—in 2015, more than 16 million U.S. adults experienced at least one episode of major depression in the previous year. With seven in ten Americans using social media, the likelihood of an overlap between someone living with depression and using social media is significant. In an age where we depend on technology for the simplest of tasks, the ability to identify depression using tech-based photo analysis exponentially increases opportunity for early detection.
These findings provide deeper insight into the parallel reality of those suffering from depression—one that may be exacerbated by coinciding physical health challenges. It’s well-known that the new diagnosis of physical conditions can trigger the onset of emotional or mental health conditions. For example, new-onset diabetes or managing Crohn’s Disease can trigger deep depression or anxiety and hence a different view of life.
Just as mental health impacts our view of the world, so does our physical health—even more so when the two occur at the same time. A diagnosis of a chronic health condition can change the way we live and experience life. For those who are already suffering from depression, diagnosis of a chronic condition is magnified and can feel insurmountable.
Taking the time to understand what someone living with depression is feeling—and offering compassion, empathy, and support—is valuable and deeply meaningful. Even for people who are not interested in talking, letting someone with depression know that you are there for them can make a profound difference.
Encourage your loved ones with depression to seek support and help connect them with the right care. Access to and delivery of appropriate treatment can change someone’s life and offer them the restoration of hope and a brighter world.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression, support is available. Find mental health resources near you at FindTreatment.SAMHSA.com.