The Problem of How to Be Depressed Online

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The latest episode of “Reply All,” a very good podcast about internet culture, is worth a listen for anyone interested in mental health and social media. In it, co-host PJ Vogt interviews Jamie Lauren Keiles, a 23-year-old artist who has struggled with bipolar disorder for a long time, and who has chronicled that struggle via Instagram. As Vogt points out, the “Depressiongrams” she posted when she was at low points weren’t carefully constructed, artful shots — rather, they displayed her condition “in all its brutal monotony.” One photo was just a line of pill bottles, for example. Keiles has been on an upswing lately, and she’s tracked that recovery over time — the photos have gotten a bit happier, more hopeful.

The episode, which also focuses on some of Vogt’s own (rather heartbreaking) experiences with depression, nicely weaving his story in with Keiles’s, ends up taking on a pair of difficult questions: How do we decide which aspects of our life to curate for online presentation, and how do we communicate with and relate to people who are much happier, or much sadder, than we are? 

Keiles offers an interesting perspective on these issues since she has seen them from both sides. When she was at her most depressed, she told Vogt, “I hate[d] when people would be like, ‘Rooting for you!,’ or ‘You’re gonna kill ‘em this time!’ — something that’s, like, too aggressive in its optimism.” It baffled her when someone would, say, post a photo of a flower and remark in the caption about how much it made them appreciate life at that moment. At the nadir of her depression, Keiles would actually seek out the work of other depressed- or struggling-seeming Instagram users. Now, however, she’s the one who sometimes wants to — pardon the cliché — stop and smell the roses. And she has trouble identifying with the person who wouldn’t understand the value in doing so.

Online, where everyone is talking to everyone all the time, these different dispositions and impulses are mashed together, as Vogt and Keiles explain in this (slightly cleaned-up) excerpt that starts at 11:56:

Vogt: The world of depressed people and the world of not-depressed people — they don’t have a lot to say to each other. Depressed people can make un-depressed people feel kind of put-upon and exhausted, and un-depressed people can make depressed people feel exasperated, and like they’re phony and annoying. And part of the problem, for lack of a better way to put this, how to be depressed online, is those worlds don’t mix well.

Keiles: Yeah, I totally agree. As someone who’s happy now and was once very sad, I can’t have any of my feeds populated with people who are just chronically unhappy. And when I was depressed, I really couldn’t have my feeds populated with people who were chronically happy. I think there is something to be said about building the online universe that serves your needs in the moment. To some degree … I think you have to let people into your life that bring out the things that you want to be brought out in you. So when you’re depressed, you want sad people in your life; when you’re happy, you want happy people in your life.

Keiles isn’t really saying that when she’s depressed she wants to encounter online people who will say “You’re right — everything is just terrible.” Rather, she’s saying that when she’s depressed, she wants a form of support that’s best provided not by a smell-the-roses type of person who will encourage her to cheer up, but by someone with a disposition closer to her wavelength, who will know that Cheer up! isn’t the best response to someone in her position. “I believe in you!” coming from a cheerful person is less helpful than “I’m really sorry you’re going through this” coming from someone who’s been there.

Vogt, for his part, says part of the struggle he has with fully empathizing is that the person he was when he was depressed seems distant and alien. He’s glad he’s forgotten what it felt like, but it also limits his vantage point a bit when it comes to relating to people who are still mired in depression. As he puts it, “Forgetting means that when you leave depression, it immediately becomes clouded-over and hard to see.”

The Problem of How to Be Depressed Online