This is a topic that’s close to my heart, as people are often shocked to know I’ve struggled with depression and poor mental health since primary school. That’s because I’m always making funny comments and trying to make other people happy, largely because of my messed up childhood making me desperate for acceptance and turning me into a people-pleaser. The smile I wear to hide my pain and near-daily struggles with suicidal and existential intrusive thoughts is really effective. One thing my existence has thought me is that smiling depression can hide a substantial amount of inner turmoil and pain.
What Is Smiling Depression?
Classic depression characteristics are normally sadness, lethargy, and despair, where someone might just stay in bed all day (Healthline). But smiling depression doesn’t present like that. According to Medical News Today, smiling depression is a term doctors will use to describe a patient that is able to mask their depression behind a façade of happiness while inside they’re dealing with feelings of hopelessness. This is supported by Bhattacharya, Hoedebecke, Sharma, Gokdemir, and Singh (2019) who also define smiling depression as people wearing a smile as a mask to hide their inner turmoil, calling it an atypical form of depression.
I was so good at hiding the pain that was weighing me down each day that most therapists couldn’t even detect it. I was even able to hide my psychotic episodes even as I was having one during a therapy session. Only one psychiatrist was able to detect what was going on under my hood, but then, for some reason, decided the Mental Health Trust couldn’t handle my needs and denied me treatment because I was too complex. It was a weird experience to be seen and then denied support because I was seen.
As eCounselling.com puts it, if you’ve ever uttered the words “I had no idea…” when learning of someone’s suicide attempt, mental breakdown, or confession of feeling utterly hopeless, then you’ve likely witnessed someone with smiling depression. The ultimate example of smiling depression that shocked the world was likely Robin Williams, Mr Funny Man himself.
It’s hardly a surprise we fall for smiling depression, because when someone looks happy, then we assume they are and don’t put much thought into it. This is why social media can have such an effect on our mental health as people can falsely present themselves as having the time of their lives on platforms like Instagram and we believe it without question, even though they could be depressed themselves.
According to Women’s Health, nearly 20% of women in a Women’s Health-National Alliance on Mental Illness survey shared a photo to social media with a caption that didn’t reflect their inner feelings of depression, due to the internal stigma they felt about their depression.
The problem with smiling depression is that it can require a lot more effort to hide your depression than to just be open about it, which can increase the risk of the person with smiling depression having a mental breakdown and taking life-ending action.
How Depression Symptoms Can Be Hidden
One way people with smiling depression can hide some of their symptoms of depression is to self-medicate through the use of caffeinated/energy drinks to mask their lethargy and substance abuse to numb the pain, or for energy as well, depending on what substance they abuse (eCounselling.com). Tricks like these can help people to retain the outward appearance of being a high-functioning individual whose happy with a steady job and good social life, but you don’t always need tricks like these to hide behind that smile. This is just an example of how it can escalate if action isn’t taken soon enough, as it becomes harder and harder to hide behind that smile.
Why People Mask Their Depression
Although society has come a long way in reducing the stigma of mental health, it still has a very long way to go. Thus, people will choose to “keep calm and carry on” and conceal their depression behind a smile so they can keep their job(s) because losing their source of income would be worse. Basically, too many people live paycheck to paycheck.
People might also hide their depression behind a smile because they want to avoid burdening others, to not make a fuss, because they don’t want to seem like they can’t cope (this is especially true of men, thanks to outdated notions of masculinity that still exist).
Another interesting reason why people decided to hide their depression behind a smile is that the person may be anticipating failure, struggling with feelings of embarrassment, and can be plagued by overthinking negative situations (Olivia Remes – The Conversation). This is all kinds of me.
My anxiety disorders are rooted in the fear that I’ll do something to embarrass myself that I might not even be aware of due to my reality being different to everyone else’s (this is where my psychosis can come in). As for my overthinking of negative situations, being trapped in my childhood trauma and overthinking everything I did and what I could have done differently caused me to have insomnia for years. Thus, it doesn’t surprise me that there might be reasons why people engage in smiling depression. After all, I often had to smile and play along while being the butt of the joke to my racist abusers.
Some people might also think that if they smile through their depression will help it go away, the “fake it to you make it” way of thinking Medical News Today. Of course, they’ll also be those that just don’t realise they’re depressed, and thus, aren’t smiling to hide the depression but just trying to push through what they think is just a bad few days, not knowing it’s something far more than that.
How To Tackle Smiling Depression
If you’ve read my article on asking twice, then the reason we need to ask twice is that people can and will hide their pain behind a smile. Don’t be reassured by a false smile or an “I’m fine” comment, as appearances are often deceiving, instead look for other clues if you’re concerned about someone’s mental health (Rebecca Lawrence – The Guardian).
People with smiling depression are at an increased risk of becoming suicidal because they haven’t sort the help they need and no one around them has a clue they’re struggling with depression. Therefore, if you’re someone with smiling depression, please talk to your loved ones and seek professional help. Furthermore, you might also benefit from my article on safety plans, where you can download my two free workbooks. You can read that article by clicking here.
If you think you might know someone who has smiling depression, then my article on how to support someone who might be suicidal might be of benefit to you, which you can read by clicking here.
The best way to tackle smiling depression is to reduce the stigma of having a mental health problem in the first place (Bhattacharya, Hoedebecke, Sharma, Gokdemir, and Singh, 2019). Otherwise, people will keep pretending like nothing’s wrong as their mental health further deteriorates and they risk having a breakdown rather than getting the help they needed earlier on.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your experiences with smiling depression in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget to bookmark my site and if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Bhattacharya, S., Hoedebecke, K., Sharma, N., Gokdemir, O., & Singh, A. (2019). “Smiling depression” (an emerging threat): Let’s Talk. Indian Journal of Community Health, 31, 433-436. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338987674_Smiling_depression_an_emerging_threat_Let’s_Talk and https://www.iapsmupuk.org/journal/index.php/IJCH/article/view/1255.