The Psych Writer on Major Depressive Disorder, Part One

Disclaimer: This is not a substitute for medical advice and is for educational purposes only. If you read this and any of the below sounds like you, seek the help of a licensed professional in your area.

Depression is a big topic. There are different types of depressive disorders, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), which affects about 6.7% of the US population. That’s around 15 million adults.

Last week, we reviewed an introduction to MDD, and I still didn’t even get into all of it. So I’ll do that here, briefly. Because of the many sufferers of MDD, there get to be a whole slew of levels of severity and specifiers. While you’re writing about these characters who have these disorders, don’t forget they are a person and they are not their pathology.

Nothing is worse than a character whose only interesting thing about them is their disorder. Remember Forgetful Jones from Sesame Street? Even he had more than one dimension. He was a cowboy. So if a cowboy Muppet with amnestic disorder can be more than just a one-dimensional character, Depressive Jones can, too.

When you decide to write from a place where your character has MDD, decide what type they have. This can be mild, moderate, or severe. They can have psychotic features (delusions, hallucinations, etc.). They can have partial or full remission as well. (Partial remission is having some of the symptoms but not meeting the full criteria for MDD for a period of less than two months. Full remission is an absence of symptoms for more than two months.)

MDD also can come with certain specifiers, such as with anxious distress or with catatonia, but there are too many specifiers to go into without scaring you away from the subject forever. I could likely write a book on each of the specifiers. So, in the interest of time and space constraints (which I will now call space-time constraints to either irritate or amuse mathematicians and physicists), I won’t list them all here. You may wish to skip over certain specifiers, but with psychotic features you can often cross it over with supernatural fiction. This should be handled carefully, though, because otherwise you risk it becoming a trope.

Another important thing to remember is that MDD distorts a person’s perceptions. I used to tell patients that their brains were trolling them. This troll brain is part of the illness. It is best expressed through Beck’s cognitive triad. The person with depression has a negative view of themselves, of the future, and of the world. They often don’t believe they’ll ever get better, this is the way it is, and that there is no one or nothing that can help them. This triad does not necessarily apply to all people with depression all of the time, but there tends to be more leaning towards negative and pessimism during the course of a depressive episode.

When writing from a therapist’s point of view, your character would see the person as ill. They would note things such as poor attention to personal hygiene, being tearful, and a depressed affect (they look “sad” or “down”). It’s an ethical therapist’s job to help a patient process their thoughts and reframe things that happen to them–to teach them how to rethink things. They also do things such as medication education and other interventions. Treatment often consists of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

An unethical therapist would do things such as foster dependency, and interventions that keep the patient depressed and vulnerable to manipulate them into doing things the patient would not normally do. People with depression can be quite vulnerable, and so open to suggestion in order to find relief, a therapist without ethics could possibly ruin the patient’s life further.

I’m not sure if it’s as interesting to write about a therapist treating someone with depression as it is to write about someone who has depression, but even then, it’s important to give your characters full dimensions.

No matter what, though, write your character as a person first, and their condition second. Otherwise, you risk making a flat character that’s nothing more than a stereotype.

If you came here looking for help with depression, please seek the help of a licensed professional in your area. Depression is a horrible, soul-sucking disorder that takes your life piece-by-piece. Don’t let it take control over you. Call for help. It’s out there.


There is little more horrific than what lies in our own imaginations. If you love reading about nightmare worlds and strange happenings, check out my author page. You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

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